IET proposes text-based 999 service

The Institution of Engineering and Technology has called on the government to redesign the emergency 999 call service

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has proposed a redesign of the emergency 999 call service to keep it in line with changing patterns of communications.

With Ofcom’s recent communications market report showing that 94% of communications among users aged 12 to 15 is now text-based, the IET claimed the existing voice-based service was no longer the most appropriate solution.

It said a text-based service could allow people to text alerts, either over SMS or through a smartphone app, to a dedicated number – probably 999 – which would then be passed on to a human operator.

The IET said the major challenge would be to set up priority routing of alerts over the mobile network to the emergency services, to avoid delays at times of peak usage, for example.

Besides teenagers, who are statistically more likely to become victims of accidents or crime, the IET said victims of crimes, such as abduction or a break-in, may also find a silent alarm text-based system safer to use than voice.

“Given this marked societal shift, it would make a lot of sense for young people to be able to contact the emergency services via text. One example would be a girl alone in a minicab who becomes worried about her personal safety.

"She might feel unable to make a call on her mobile phone – but could send a text. This is not mere theory – examples of perhaps-preventable deaths are known,” said Will Stewart, chair of the IET Communications Policy Panel.

There would also be benefits in screening out hoax or non-emergency alerts – the bane of many 999 operators – meaning blue light services could respond quicker and more appropriately, and at lower cost.

“Text-based systems lend themselves to automatic handling that could enable alerts to be effectively prioritized before a human operator is needed. This automatic handling could include, for example, checking and passing on any known user information, approximate handset location and any recent issues with the handset, such as if it has been reported stolen,” explained Stewart.

“It could also check whether the message contains any alert keywords such as ‘SOS’, and use location and other data available from modern smartphones, resulting in a much more accurate and rapid assessment of the level and nature of the threat involved.”

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