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22nd September 2009

First they gave deaf people subtitles on telly, then they threw in this little thing called the internet and email, and finally they added a cherry to the cake: With mobile phones came text messaging and the chance for instant communication, wherever we were. Day to day life would never be quite the same again.
Mobile phone held in hands
You don't have to be deaf to appreciate text messages, but as of this month, if you are deaf, sending a text might do more than just help you socialise - it could save your life. A new system is being trialled that allows people who can't hear, or those who can't speak, to contact the emergency services by texting 999. A national service using those 3 famous digits.
Previous schemes were more local, and didn't have just one memorable number. It was unsatisfactory because you would need to know what the relevant nearby text number was or even if they had one in the area you were visiting.

Until now, deaf people have had two options in an emergency.
One is Text Relay, where you type what you want to say on a Textphone to an operator who converts your written words into speech. This has the benefit of getting immediate information and advice in a two-way conversation and is still the best way of calling the emergency services.

Of course, you need to possess a Textphone - a 'special' piece of deaf kit.

A less satisfactory way, but one that works when there's no other choice, is to dial 999 and make a noise indicating someone is there, then hope your location gets traced by the emergency services - a method BT themselves have suggested. But this means having no idea if your call has even got through, let alone whether the right kind of help is on its way.
Textphones aren't mobile, however. What if you're away from home, perhaps on a mountain top with a triple leg fracture just as the fog is closing in, or you're in an accident on a country road; in these situations you're completely stuck. This is where the new text service kicks in. It offers a crucial alternative.

Register for the new Emergency Text service
Police car blue light
Once registered, all you have to do when (god forbid) an emergency occurs, is text three pieces of information.

First you tell them the service you need (Fire, Ambulance, Police, or if you've got the inflatable dingy out again, the coastguard). Then you say what the problem is and finally where you are. Your text will be treated with the same importance as a phone call and you should get a reply within 2 minutes.

Just a note. It's probably not a good idea to use 'text speak' in your emergency texts. Sending "Omg. I bin robbed. Pls send old bill asap. Hb. Here's my addy. L8r." might not amuse the operator, much. And adding emoticons would probably have the police offering you a night in the cells, rather than the perpetrator of the crime you're reporting, on the grounds of taste alone, surely.
The service has been years in the planning as a joint, voluntary and non-profit venture between RNID, BT, Ofcom, and the mobile phone companies.

I spoke to the RNID's Director of Technology, Guido Gybels, who explained that despite the obvious benefits of the service, using text in an emergency should always be a last resort because there is an inevitable delay compared with speech or Text Relay to make the call.

Why do you need to register in advance? After all, people who phone 999 don't need to pre-register in order to call for an ambulance. Gybels explained that this was necessary "to protect the service from abuse from anonymous pay as you go mobiles," which would be impossible to trace.

They need 5,000-10,000 people to register in order to make it likely that the service will be used in a genuine emergency. After a day and a half they had 500 which was a great start. So get registering!
The service has already offered me peace of mind. My partner, who doesn't speak on phones, has signed up for the service. I have to admit that I had some problems when registering but don't let this put you off - I later found the reason why. My phone uses the T-Mobile network and they're not joining the trial until the end of September. All other mobile phone providers are already offering the service - my partner is with Orange and signed up without a blip. So if you can't register on your mobile, try again when October comes.
The good news is that while the Emergency Text service is currently a trial, Gybels told me that he is optimistic that, barring any mishaps or major redesigns, it will continue and become a permanent fixture in 2010. Fingers crossed.

So in this marriage of technology and common sense, deaf people can finally contact the emergency services wherever they are and perhaps the life expectancy of the deaf population has just increased by a few months, if not years.


    • 1. At 12:00pm on 03 Oct 2009, MM wrote:

      I have had text access to 999 for a long time, Kent had it a few YEARS ago, as have others. A lot of us decided that rather than wait for the RNID or BDA to get off their bums we would do it ourselves, now they are trying to take credit for it ? why aren't we surprised. Many could have had this 6 years ago, they were in the main too lazy to campaign for it, who dares wins ! Personally I would have NOTHING to do with anything the RNID is inviolved in, it is NOT a deaf group.

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    • 2. At 3:13pm on 03 Oct 2009, twinkleDustyC wrote:

      MM I find your comments bordering on being offensive. Whilst I can not comment on the RNID or BDA (although I have been profoundly deaf for the last 40 years, I have never been involved with these organisations), it is your comments about people being too lazy to campaign that has got my goat. I have been campaigning for over two years for such a system (both a local and national system). I have written to Minister (and received responses, over a period of two years, outlining the progress that was being achieved in setting up a national services) and the organisation that I work for (a local disability coalition) spent over £12,000 hosting a fully assessable conference (BSL interpreters, lip-speakers, palantypists etc) about the lack of access deaf people face due to statutory organisations not meeting our access needs, during which the campaign for an SMS emergency services was a major part. The event, especially the lack of SMS emergency access was picked up by both local TV news stations and the local Radio. Although we still don't have a local SMS service (the Fire and Rescue service have been very supportive of the campaign, and we have lobbied hard to get other emergency services involved) deaf people locally will now be grateful that we have a National Service, and that is what matters. I do not care one iota about the RNID's involvement in the matter. We now have Nation Wide access for the first time and should be grateful. We never know when we will need to use it, who knows it might save your life one day, if you are travelling in an area which does not have a local SMS emergency service. I know other Deaf, deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people who have campaigned hard, sometimes at expense to themselves, and I think that it is inappropriate to assume that if people do not have access it is because they are too lazy to do anything about it.

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    • 3. At 4:48pm on 13 Dec 2009, spiderplant88 wrote:

      MM - your comments towards RNID are unhelpful and at best petty and childish. The RNID has worked tirelessly for years to improve life for the 9 million people in the UK who are deaf of hard of hearing. The SMS initiative is another great way in which the RNID is working to make life safer for people with a hearing loss.

      Deafness is not exclusive. It affects many many people and to ignore all those affected by hearing loss to concentrate solely on one particularl group would be detrimental to all concerned.

      Instead of complaining all the time, why dont you 'get off your bum' and do something about it and campaign for Deaf people for RNID. Instead of complaining about how bad the organisation is, why dont you work to make it better by joining the campaign.

      Only then will you put your money where your mouth is!

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