Update 999 tech for smartphone generation, report says


The Institute of Engineering and Technology says emergency service numbers need to be adapted for text and social media

A report for the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) has called for radical changes to be made to 999 call services to allow people to fully utilise a smartphone in the case of an emergency.

The “Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age” report argues that the emergency services should create a database system to filter reports and deploy responders.

The IET says smartphone technology such as apps and SMS could be utilised to send alerts to the emergency services, which need to be updated to “reflect the digital age”.

Professor Will Stewart, chair of the IET’s Communications Policy Panel, argued that communication has drastically changed since the 999 service was designed in 1937, with more people using texts and social media to communicate than voice calls.

Ofcom figures show 94 per cent of communication from 12-15 year olds is text-based.

“There is a critical need to update the service,” he added. “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.

“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.”

Robust platform for emergencies

The findings were backed by global messaging provider Infobip. The firm processes over 1.5 billion messages worldwide on a monthly basis.

Infobip CEO Silvio Kutic said one of the major benefits of an SMS-based service is that messaging is more reliable.

“One of the major advantages of SMS over virtually any other mobile channel is that it just works,” he added. “This makes SMS a robust platform for use in emergencies, not only for public services to broadcast information during a crisis, but also as a fall back option for users when voice or data services are down.

“A number of cities across the US have already introduced text-to-911 services, so it’s not unexpected to see other countries looking to respond to the needs of the digital age we now live in.

“For ease of use, this could be delivered through a mobile app. If the UK emergency services department designed an application that at the click of a button sends the user’s location and a summary of their emergency, via SMS to ensure delivery, this could make all the difference when it comes to evolving the emergency services for a new generation of users with different mobile habits.”