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IET renews demand for 999 emergency call service rethink

The Institute of Engineering and Technology has renewed its request for an overhaul of the emergency 999 call service

In the wake of Ofcom’s 2015 Communications Market Report, published on 6 August, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has re-opened the debate over the future of the 999 emergency call service.

Ofcom’s extensive annual survey found that nearly 70% of British adults now own a smartphone, up from 39% in 2012, and that use of landline services is dwindling fast.

In light of this, the IET said urgent action was needed to ensure the vital 999 service kept pace with the move away from traditional landlines towards smartphones and associated wearable devices.

“Smartphones have become the hub of our daily lives and are now in the pockets of two-thirds of UK adults. The vast majority of young people own one. Even half of 55- to 64-year-olds now own a smartphone,” said Will Stewart, chair of the IET communications policy panel.

“The data from Ofcom highlights the urgent need for radical changes to be made to the 999 emergency service so that those in need can text as well as call.

“Much of the technology we need to update our emergency service is available today. But we urgently need to make progress now, with clear ownership from government and ministerial leadership,” said Stewart.

The IET first put the issue on the table in August 2014 when it proposed a text-based 999 service, saying that such a system might help victims of some crimes, such as abduction or break-in, raise the alarm silently, as well as being more attractive to younger people, who are statistically more likely to fall victim to crime.

It said a data-based emergency service would allow people to text alerts via an associated app on a specific number – there is no reason why 999 could not still be used – which would then be passed to a human operator for response.

The biggest challenge this would throw up, according to the IET, would be enabling priority routing of alerts over the UK’s mobile networks, particularly at peak times.

It called for consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers and device manufacturers to mitigate this problem.

In response to a consultation on the issue, which ran over Christmas 2014, the Cabinet Office proposed amending the Electronic Communications Regulations 2003 to allow the introduction of an SMS mobile alert system – similar to one used in the US in cases of child abduction – but this did not address giving people the ability to text the emergency services.

However, the IET said it is concerned that the government had allowed the issue of wider reform to drift. .......................... ........... ............ .............

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