Many of us take our ability to make emergency calls for granted. But some demographic groups, such as the deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing, still have limited options for reaching emergency services and getting help quick. Making emergency calls more accessible is a global challenge, but new technology offers promising solutions.
The 21st century has seen the development of many new digital services, such as text messaging and GPS. Costs have also gone down for both mobile phones and data transfer. Society is growing more technologically advanced every day. These technologies provide opportunities to help people in danger – the next generation of 112 is coming.
Equal opportunity and emergency calls
In many parts of the world today, there is a strong commitment to put deaf, deaf-blind and hard of hearing people on equal footing with the rest of us in terms of being able to make emergency calls. Unfortunately, options for this group today often fall short: Some countries offer only fax, which is far from ideal in house fires where victims are forced to leave their homes to reach safety – with their only hope being that someone else will contact emergency services on their behalf.
SMS to 112
Several countries have invested in SMS and text messaging to make it easier for anyone to reach 112 services. And from a pure accessibility perspective, texting does have its advantages. Through text messages, callers can communicate without using voice and sound, which may be beneficial in certain situations. For instance, it allows alarm operators and hard of hearing individuals to communicate directly with each other. But it also gives people in distress the ability to contact SOS discreetly in situations where it may be dangerous to draw attention to the caller. Such situations can include terrorist attacks, school shootings or home invasions.
However, SMS technology has its limitations, and in many European countries, pre-registration is required to contact 112 services. Also, it is hard to know for sure that the alarm operator is logged in and has seen your message. In addition, it may take up to 17 minutes for text messages to be processed. This means not only that you will occupy the attention of an alarm operator for a long time, but also that you run the risk of help being delayed in a life and death situation.
The next generation of 112 technology promises to make emergency calls more accessible to everyone. Real-time text, RTT, is the new standard for sending and receiving messages. This means that text conversations are displayed character by character and that users establish conversations with the alarm operator. RTT communication also allows for video calls, which makes it possible to include an interpreter. In the Netherlands, for example, a project has been underway since 2014 to upgrade the 112 platform and introduce direct calls for the deaf.