999 emergency service needs to be modernised to include texts

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has just produced a new report which states the case for updating the emergency '999' call service so it's relevant to a new generation who are glued to their smartphones.

The authors of the report, entitled Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age, argue that these days we need more than a simple emergency number to call, and a new cross-platform emergency service should be implemented to cater for the likes of social media and texts.

The concept is to be discussed at a meeting involving the IET, government representatives, BT, mobile phone industry bigwigs, Ofcom and of course the emergency services themselves.

The broad idea would be a data-based emergency service that could be plugged into any appropriate app allowing people to text alerts which would be passed on to the human emergency operator.

The main challenge? These alerts would have to be prioritised to avoid any possible delays at busy times of the day – so mobile networks and app developers would have to ensure this happened.

The use of smartphones for emergency calls would offer some pretty neat advantages, such as for example using the handset's GPS capability to automatically and swiftly pinpoint the location of an emergency. The software could even provide the human operator with access to the phone's camera to help assess the situation.

Professor Will Stewart, Chair of the IET’s Communications Policy Panel, commented: “Communications has changed drastically since the ‘999’ service was designed in 1937 – so there is a critical need to update the service. Ofcom figures show, for example, that 94 per cent of communications from 12-15 year olds is text based. Given that young people are statistically more likely to be victims of crime or accidents, it is a concern that making a voice call to contact the emergency services is not something that would feel natural to them.

“A girl alone in a mini cab who becomes worried about her personal safety might feel unable to make a call on her mobile phone – but could send a text or alert someone over social media. And in the case of certain crimes, such as abduction or a break-in, a silent text or app-based alarm system would be more appropriate and instinctive than the current voice-based one for everybody – irrespective of their age.”

He further noted: “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.”

Image Credit: Shutterstock/Aleksandra Gigowska