IET calls for radical overhaul of UK’s 999 emergency calling technology

Institution of Engineering and Technology report argues that 999 technology must keep up with smartphone generation

IET calls for radical overhaul of UK’s 999 emergency calling technology

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is calling for radical changes to the emergency ‘999’ call service to reflect the digital age, where more people are communicating by text or social media, rather than making a voice call.

A report, ‘Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age’, sets out the case for our emergency services to keep pace with the increasing move away from landlines to smart phones, and from voice to data. It argues that in a world where smartphones, text and social media are becoming the norm, creating a new cross-platform, data-based emergency service with a standard interface for consumers should be a priority.

The IET said that such a move may not only save lives but also enable calls and messages to be better filtered in order to receive more appropriate and faster responses, probably at lower cost.

Up until now the drive to update 999 has come from British APCO and others working on a voluntary basis – the difficulty being no Government department has been willing to ‘own’ the process and lead it, let alone fund the necessary work. However, the IET is leading an initiative that may change that.

The organisation, supported by the Cabinet Office, is bringing together representatives from Government, the emergency services, BT (which handles 999 calls for the UK), Ofcom and the mobile phone industry to agree how best to work together to bring the emergency service into the digital age.

Professor Will Stewart, Chair of the IET’s Communications Policy Panel, said: ‘Communications has changed drastically since the 999 service was designed in 1937 – so there is a critical need to update the service. Much of the technology we need to update our emergency service is available today.

‘But we need a shared, cross-party strategy to create a common and user-friendly interface for all service providers to connect to – and one that the general public will be happy to use. And it’s important we do this before different parties go off and do their own thing – confronting the public with too many options and no universal emergency service.’

The 999 service is largely voice-only and far more calls are now made from mobile phones. The problem is mobiles are designed to shut down GPS and other services to ensure the 999 call gets through, but this can make it very difficult to locate the caller if they are unsure where they are. The current 999 service is also not set up to handle texts, messaging apps, photos or video.

A data-based emergency service would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999 – and these alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator. The main engineering challenge would be to set up priority routing of alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times. This needs to be arranged in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers.

Superintendent Mark Nottage, who works on the Emergency Services Mobile
Communication Programme at the Home Office, agreed that ensuring increasingly data-based public services, including the Police Service, are in the best possible position to use advances in digital technology is a priority.

“Many people, particularly young people, are using a range of social media applications to communicate, and many rarely make voice calls in their daily lives. This means that we need to adapt and be responsive to ensure that when people need to contact the emergency services or other public services they can quickly access the right information and the most appropriate service first time, and in the way that they choose and are familiar with,” said Nottage.

A data-based emergency service would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999 – and these alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator. The main engineering challenge would be to set up priority routing of alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times. This needs to be arranged in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers.

There is also considerable opportunity to improve the existing emergency service with, for example, the latest GPS technology available on smart phones. An automatic software system could scan texts and pass on any known user information, approximate handset location and any recent issues with the handset, such as if it has been reported stolen.

It could also check whether the message contains any alert keywords such as ‘SOS’, or ‘release’ use of the camera or voice recording functions on the phone to the human operator, resulting in a much more accurate and rapid assessment of the level and nature of the threat involved.

Some apps for smartphones are exploring even more novel possibilities, such as peer-to-peer help systems for emergencies.

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