Emergency services must embrace digital technology to offer 999 text and app services, according to a report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
The IET's Contacting Emergency Services in the Digital Age report argues that "radical changes" are needed to the 999 emergency call service as more people use text messages rather than phone calls, and abandon landlines in favour of smartphones.
As such the report urges the emergency services to make use of the capabilities built into smartphones and apps, such as GPS location tracking, to improve the effectiveness of emergency responses.
This would involve setting up systems in emergency operation centres to harness the data capabilities of web-connected devices, including smartphones and other smart devices being used in modern homes and cars.
Professor Will Stewart, chairman of the IET's Communications Policy Panel, explained that such systems could be created from existing technology.
"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," he said.
"And it's important that 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."
The report noted that there are products and services that allow the emergency services to make use of digital information and technology, but they operate in silos and lack the co-ordination and a common interface that allows texts and digital data to be used effectively.
The IET recommends that the emergency services take a common approach to harness modern technology and bring together data from numerous sources.
The report also said that a common strategy will help address problems around data regulations and privacy, as well as establish technology and service standards applicable to digital communication.
The IET recommended four main areas where common standards will be needed to deliver the common strategy.
The first involves creating standard system interfaces that allow emergency apps and services to be integrated with the operational systems of the emergency services.
These standards will need to be open enough to allow technology companies to create services and products that work with emergency services systems.
The second is global mobile standards to ensure that emergency alert functionality is uniformly built into smartphones.
The third recommendation suggests that standard user interfaces will be needed so that everyone becomes familiar with how to alert the emergency services, using digital communication in the same way that 999 is embedded in people's minds.
Lastly, the report recommends a timely step-by-step approach to establishing such standards, as trying to standardise everything at once will cause good ideas to be missed, while moving too slowly will allow too many disparate technologies to creep into the emergency systems, making it more challenging to set standards.
Stewart added that the need for the emergency services to tap into digital communications is being driven by changes in the way people communicate.
"Communication has changed drastically since the 999 service was designed in 1937, so there is a critical need to update the service. Ofcom figures show, for example, that 94 percent of communications by 12- to 15-year-olds is text-based," he said.
"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."
Superintendent Mark Nottage, who works on the Emergency Services Mobile Communication Programme at the Home Office, agreed it was important to reassess how emergency communications are handled in the digital age:
“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," he said.
"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."
Digital data, communications and technology is being increasingly used to aid emergency service with EE, BT and HTC teaming up last year to launch a new system that can more accurate locate a 999 call made from a mobile phone.
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