Press release

A universal emergency text service could save lives, says the IET

07 August 2014

Telecoms industry urged to consider 999 technology for the ‘text generation’ in the wake of huge increase in text usage reported by Ofcom today

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is calling for a complete re-think of the emergency ‘999’ call service to bring it into line with the revolution in communications, and particularly with changing patterns of communication among young people.  This may not only save lives but enable calls and texts to be better filtered in order to receive more appropriate and faster responses, probably at lower cost.

Communications has changed drastically since the ‘999’ service was designed.  For example data rather than voice dominate usage, as do mobiles rather than land lines.  And figures released by Ofcom today show that 94% of communications from 12-15 year olds is text based. Young people are not only particularly frequent and skilled text communicators, but are statistically more likely to be victims of crime or accidents. For this reason we are calling for the implementation of a new cross-platform text-based ‘999’ emergency service.  And for all victims of certain crimes such as abduction or a break-in may, a silent text alarm system many also be more appropriate and easier to use than the current voice-based one.

A text-based emergency service would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999 – and these alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator. The main engineering challenge would be to set up priority routing of alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times. This needs to be arranged in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers.

Will Stewart, Chair, IET Communications Policy Panel, said: “The trend towards text-based rather than voice-based communication began with SMS text services but now extends to app-based text services like WhatsApp and social networks like Facebook. 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 mini cab 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”  

“Text-based systems lend themselves to automatic handling that could enable alerts to be effectively prioritised 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. 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.

“There is already a small-scale SMS-based system at European level for disabled users who have difficulty with voice communication, but it requires user registration and is very modest in scale compared with the existing 999 voice service. Nor does it prioritize messages, which would be necessary for a widespread service.  

“The IET urges serious and immediate consideration of an updated ‘999 service for the Digital Age’.”

Media enquiries to:

Katie Stanton
Communications Executive

Tel: +44(0)1438 765608
Mob: +44(0)7738 713867
Email: kstanton@theiet.org

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