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SOS with SMS: call for emergency services to adapt to the digital age

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A leading academic has called for radical changes to how people contact emergency services, calling for SMS and other mobile and smartphone technology to be adopted for the digital age.

According to reports on the BBC website, Prof Will Stewart – who chairs Institute of Engineering and Technolohy (IET)’s communications policy panel – says that smartphone technology and apps could be used to send alerts to the emergency services. The emergency services should create a data-based system to filter reports and deploy responders, he says.

The current emergency services set up was created in 1937, and the way people communicate has changed dramatically over the past 80 years.

“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,” Prof Stewart said.

He added: “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. 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.”

Prof Stewart said much of the technology required to update 999 services was available, but changes would need to be arranged in consultation with the main mobile and app-based text providers.

Any change could provide a great opportunity to the telemedia sector to help the emergency services create new messaging channels and utilize SMS and push messaging.

“One of the major advantages of SMS over virtually any other mobile channel is that it just works,” says Silvio Kutic, CEO at Infobip. “On any type of phone, from basic handsets to the latest smart devices, SMS is consistent and reliable. This makes SMS a robust platform for use in emergencies, not only for public services to broadcast information during a crisis, but also as a fall back option for users when voice or data services are down.”

A number of cities across the US have already introduced text-to-911 services, so it’s not unexpected to see other countries looking to respond to the needs of the digital age we now live in.

“For ease of use, this could be delivered through a mobile app,”says Kutic. “If the UK emergency services department designed an application that at the click of a button sends the user’s location and a summary of their emergency, via SMS to ensure delivery, this could make all the difference when it comes to evolving the emergency services for a new generation of users with different mobile habits.”

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