999 - Access for all

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Smartphones have become the hub of our daily lives and are now in the pockets of two thirds of UK adults, and the vast majority of young people own one. Even half of 55 - 64 year olds now own a smartphone.

The Ofcom 2015 Communications Market Report 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.

A data-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, and with makers of new technology like wearables that might aid or even make emergency calls.

Prof Will Stewart

Institution of Engineering and Technology

Savoy Place, London WC2R 0BL