Language & Communication9th August 2014

USA shows UK how to Improve Access to Emergency Services

999 is a critical public service, it is not readily accessible to deaf people at a time when the US are opening their 911 service

by Simon Deacy OBE

When it comes to making an emergency call to the police, fire, ambulance or coast guard, the deaf community have had what can only be described as a second class service for many years. I don't know if lives have been lost as a result of the 999 system being largely inaccessible, but it wouldn’t surprise me. I suppose it’s almost impossible to know the true impact. We do of course have the Emergency SMS system in the UK, but this is far from perfect, with Deaf people having to pre-register for the service, and the text messaging taking place outside the main 999 system.

Looking at the technology that is available today and despite the failures of the 999 system being common knowledge amongst the powers that be, very little has been done to improve the accessibility of one of the most critical of public services. I am pleased to say that the Americans are not resting on the same laurels with a ruling by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on the 8th August bringing US emergency services into the 21st century.

The ruling requires all cellular service providers to make texting 911 a possibility for its customers. According to the official FCC notice, the action will make text-to-911 more uniformly available and keeps pace with how Americans communicate. Reports indicate that more than 7 out of 10 cell phone users send or receive text messages with text messaging also used widely by the deaf community.

Commenting on the FCC’s ruling Chairman Tom Wheeler commented, “Today, we are taking actions that allow 911 to keep pace with new technology, that sets the stage for enabling even more functionality on the 911 platform. We know that text-to-911, where it is available, is a lifesaver.” In a comment that should be heard by the authorities in the UK, Wheeler went on to say, “Text messaging has become increasingly utilised by mobile users, and it should be able to serve those consumers in a time of need.”

The ruling will see an extension of the emergency text service that has been introduced voluntarily by four of the biggest mobile phone companies. It is considered that the extension of the 911 text service will save lives. This includes opening up the service to people who are Deaf, Hard of Hearing or have speech difficulties. However, it will also give a safer option to people who are hiding from an attacker and want to make an emergency call but do not want to give away their position or be seen talking on the phone.

In her statement about the impact of the decision for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn of the FCC said, “This technology enables the more than 40 million people in the U.S. with hearing and speech disabilities to use their mobile phones to effectively access emergency services. Without text-to-911, they may possess the ability to place a call; but remain unable to express what type of help they need.”  

Understandably, and given the limitation of text messaging compared to a voice call, the FCC said text-to-911 should not replace calling 911, it should only serve only as a complement to the existing service. In their announcement the FCC also said that although text-to-911 availability is currently limited, it is rapidly expanding. More than one hundred 911 call centres serving portions of 16 states and two entire states (Vermont and Maine) are now accepting emergency texts, and there are already reports of lives saved.

In a statement supporting the ruling, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel commented, “I know that texting-to-911 can be a game changer for those who are deaf or have speech difficulties. In fact, I had the privilege of seeing this up close in Frederick, Maryland, where the service is available and the Maryland School for the Deaf is located.”

Successive UK Government officials and technology companies have systematically ignored the calls from the deaf community about access to the 999 system, apart from the hit and miss SMS text service. Technology companies have been happy to take the deaf pound to get access to their mobile phone services despite having to pay for features that are useless for them. They seem to have given no consideration about re-investing some of that income into better deaf access and the authorities seem incapable or unwilling to instruct them to do so.

The USA are fortunate to have influential leadership from the likes of Tom Wheeler on the FCC. We can only hope that officials here in the UK take heed to his viewpoint that, “The message to providers, the public safety community, and, most importantly, consumers, should be crystal clear:  the Commission will not stand idly by and allow public safety to become an afterthought just because technologies change. Americans should not have to worry about whether the platforms and services they use for everyday communications can reach 911 in an emergency.”

Article by Simon Deacy OBE

posted in Community / Language & Communication

9th August 2014