When 999 won't work, get texting

SMS has made it easier for hard-of-hearing people to contact the emergency services, writes Karl Cushing

SMS has made it easier for hard-of-hearing people to contact the emergency services, writes Karl Cushing

West Midlands Police force has launched an SMS-based service to enable deaf people to contact the emergency services via text message in the first such project of its kind in the UK.

Max Corney, West Midlands Police IT communications manager, says a key driver behind the scheme was that the existing methods of contacting the police, such as minicom, were unsuitable for the deaf, hard-of-hearing and speech-impaired. To illustrate his point, Corney says that of the 700,000 calls to the 999 service and the 3 million 'non-999' calls it receives each year, none of them are on minicom. Text messaging was more flexible and popular. "There's a demand for it, definitely," he says.

Users have to register to use the service, and their personal details are held on a database at the force's communication centre. This helps the police recognise the "texter" and respond to the appeal more effectively. Corney says there were initial concerns over the delays in receiving text messages. The emergency services have strict guidelines on incident response. Registering users should help to speed up this process, he says, although the force does tell users they may not receive the same standard of service as with making a 999 call.

Take-up of the scheme has been helped by the force's close working relationship with the Birmingham Institute of the Deaf and when launched on 15 July the service already had "a couple of hundred users", he says.

The institute also carried out research in which 98% of the hearing-impaired people surveyed said they used SMS and 85% said they would like to use the service to contact the emergency services. "When we thought about it, we realised it was something we had to do," says Corney.

The force has also worked closely with Vodafone, which sold the force a Xiam Gateway to convert inbound SMS messages into e-mails, and provided implementation help and advice. When a registered user sends the force an SMS alert, they receive an automated reply saying that it has been received and is being dealt with. The gateway converts the SMS into an e-mail, feeds it into the main e-mail system and directs it to the force's control room. The gateway cost about £10,000, but Corney says West Midlands wanted to buy one anyway.

The aim is for SMS to replace the force's pager system and augment its radio communication system. "I feel pleased that we're helping members of the local community, making their life better and easier," says Corney.

At present the service is restricted to deaf people in the West Midlands. However, if it proves successful, Corney says the force will consider opening up the service to all citizens in the area, and that other forces have already shown interest.

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