Experts argue need for urgent overhaul of 999 services

Published 6 August 2015, Ofcom’s ‘Communications Market Report’ discloses that smartphones have become the hub of UK citizens’ daily lives. Now technology experts are arguing that the emergency ‘999’ call service is in need urgent change to reflect the digital age.

Move away from landlines to smartphones and wearables

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is highlighting that vital action is needed now to keep pace with the increasing move away from landlines to smartphones and to devices they enable such as wearables, and from voice to data.

The IET is also calling on the government to ensure that reform of the service is not allowed to drift.

‘999’ call service – those in need should be able to text as well as call

Prof Will Stewart from the IET said: “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 data from Ofcom 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.”

Data-based emergency service

IET has outlined a data-based emergency service, which would allow people to text alerts via any appropriate app on a chosen easy-to-remember special number, such as 999. These alerts would then be passed to the human emergency operator.

Setting up priority routing of alerts to this special number in order to avoid delays at busy times, has been stressed as a main engineering challenge. This needs to be arranged in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers, and with makers of new technology such as wearables that might aid or even make emergency calls.

IoT in emergency services

The IET ‘Contacting the Emergency Services in the Digital Age’ report also outlined some short-term strategies such as working with selected key players and bringing in new players including BSI, 5G, IC and Ofcom. One of the initiatives highlighted in the report is eCall (automatic vehicle accident alert), which demonstrates the possibilities of IoT in emergency services.


The report was produced with the co-operation of the Cabinet Office.