Emergency text scheme ‘should be compulsory’


Mobile phone companies should be forced to sign up permanently to a scheme that allows disabled people to send text messages to the emergency services instead of dialling “999”, according to the communications watchdog.

A trial of the emergencySMS scheme has been running across the UK since late 2009, and so far has 14,500 registered users, most of whom are Deaf or have hearing or speech impairments.

Messages are routed via the Text Relay call centre – which deals with calls to and from textphones – and users receive a message within two minutes to say their message has been received.

One woman who used the system has told how it helped save her colleague’s life, after she collapsed at work.

OFCOM said feedback from users and emergency services had been “overwhelmingly positive”, with about one text a day leading to attendance by the police, ambulance or fire service, while it had proved “robust, consistent and entirely dependable”.

Now it wants to “safeguard” it by making it compulsory for mobile phone companies to offer the service to disabled people who register their phone with the scheme.

OFCOM said that making the scheme permanent would cost a one-off sum of £80,000 and annual running costs of about £70,000, to be split between mobile network operators.

The proposal is part of changes that OFCOM believes need to be made to its regulations in order to comply with new European laws that come into effect on 25 May. It is now consulting on the changes.

Under the European regulations, disabled people must have access to emergency services that is as close to that enjoyed by other consumers as technology allows.

OFCOM said the emergency text scheme “does have limitations”, such as taking longer to exchange information, but offers “greater equivalence than current alternatives”.

Chris Bowden, senior usability officer for the charity RNID, said: “We welcome OFCOM’s proposal that the voluntary trial enabling people to text the emergency services should be made mandatory.

“This is a vital service which makes it as easy as possible for people with hearing loss to contact the emergency services in their hour of need.”

24 February 2011