News10th July 2015

Light at the end of the tunnel for a Deaf Friendly 999 system?

This week's report by Professor Stewart captures many of the issues the Deaf community have been arguing for, for years.

by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

Meeting with a senior manager responsible for equality within BT a few years ago, I called for a change to the current 999 emergency service to better support Deaf and Hard of Hearing people, making better use of mobile technology rather than simply relying on a voice call. Enthusiastic during the meeting, the gentleman sent me an email the following day, saying that BT were not interested as they no longer owned a mobile phone network. Equal access, equality legislation, respect and consideration for Deaf people did not come into it apparently.

Deflated, in respect of the national picture, I tried working with my local police to begin the process of change. Despite promising meetings and hours spent supporting their development of an app for Deaf and HoH people, they delayed implementation slightly due a major event in the area, and 15 months after a scheduled go-live date, I have heard nothing further from them.

Against this backdrop, I read with great interest the Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age Report by Professor Will Stewart from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). Recommending radical change, adoption would finally give Deaf and HoH people proper access to a system that the majority of people take for granted. Whilst the emergency text service introduced for deaf people gave us a way of making contact, it was far from ideal, especially as so few Deaf people actually registered to use it, a pre-requisite to use the system.

The UK’s 999 system was first introduced in 1937. Before that people had to telephone the individual service they needed directly, with all calls given equal priority. Two years earlier, a call placed in a queue to the Fire Brigade resulted in people losing their lives, and that seems to have provided the impetus for a national emergency number.

Covering a small geographical area in the early years, 999 was made available in major cities after World War II and then to the whole of the UK in 1976.

Four of our emergency services maintain full-time control rooms to respond to 999 calls, the Police, Ambulance Service, Fire Brigade, and Coastguard. These services also receive the emergency call for other services such as the Lifeboat Service and Mountain Rescue, when their control rooms are closed. Highly successful for voice calls, the 999 system has undoubtedly done it’s job in giving people with a voice ready access to these services in times of an emergency, saving many lives and allowing the emergency services to respond more quickly to incidents.

Like the majority of Deaf people in this country, Professor Stewart has identified significant benefits to the 999 system if it is modernised and embraces the digital age. Indeed, in light of the huge technological advances that have occurred, he considers the need to update the 999 system is ‘critical’. The Deaf community would wholeheartedly agree with that.

Whilst the Professor makes reference to Deaf and other disabled users of the system, his recommendations and calls for change are not based on those needs, but on the changing communication patterns within society as a whole. Highlighting the way young people use their smartphones, the Professor is of the view that an emergency app is far more likely to be used than a traditional phone call. According to the latest figures from Ofcom, 94% of communications by 12 to 15 years olds is now text-based.

Whilst no-one bothers to analyse use by Deaf people, I anticipate that our use of text-based communication is even higher, mine is certainly around the 99% mark.

Additionally and rightly, Professor Stewart identifies that there are many circumstances when people in need of emergency help would not want to use their voice to make the call, where a text message would be more appropriate. "A girl alone in a minicab 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," he said. "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.”

In any case involving a risk to personal safety, a text option would be beneficial, especially in cases involving violence by a partner for example . Retired senior police officer Simon Deacy OBE, the police project lead for the No Witness No Justice witness care programme that was introduced a decade ago told me, “In terms of public safety, 999 is one of the most important systems in the UK, and yet it has been allowed to wallow and become out-dated. Even if the will has been there to modernise, the money has not, and if people are honest, the current system has been letting people down, especially the Deaf community.”

With Global Position System (GPS) technology readily used on our mobile phones, and the user’s access to instant photographs, video and voice, it seems astonishing that there has not been a greater appetite to use this technology to better inform the emergency services about what is happening when they are needed before, and we can but hope the Government takes a strong leadership position in meeting these calls for change.

Professor Stewart explained, ”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.”

Superintendent Mark Nottage, who works on the Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme at the Home Office, said progressing with the use of digital technology is a priority. "Many people, particularly young people, are using a range of social media applications to communicate, and many rarely make voice calls in their daily lives. This means that we need to adapt and be responsive to ensure that when people need to contact the emergency services or other public services they can quickly access the right information and the most appropriate service first time, and in the way that they choose and are familiar with.”

Professor Stewart who is the Chair of the IET’s Communications Policy Panel launched his report earlier this week at a meeting supported by the Cabinet Office, bringing together representatives from Government, the emergency services, BT, Ofcom and the mobile phone industry with the aim of agreeing how best to work together to bring the 999 system into the digital age.

Whilst the communication habits of our younger generation appears to have been the main stimulus for this work, years and years of lobbying by Deaf people failing miserably to generate any interest, I hope that someone involved will recognise that Deaf and Hard of Hearing people will be significant beneficiaries of any new system. As main users of the system, I hope deaf people get the opportunity to contribute to the work as it progresses.

Article by Sarah Lawrence, Editor

posted in Community / News

10th July 2015