by Carlo Longino

Filed Under:
common sense, emergency calls

Do Emergency Calls Need More Technology Or More Common Sense?

from the if-you-can't-hear-this-message,-dial-5-now dept

A guilty verdict in a rape and murder case in the UK is raising some questions about the country's emergency call system and its ability to deal with callers who can't speak. In this case, the 17-year-old victim dialed 999 (the British equivalent of 911) while she was being abducted, but she was obviously unable to speak directly to the operator without alerting her killer. The system followed its usual procedure for silent calls, giving the caller a recorded message to either tap their phone or hit the 5 key twice. That is fine for somebody whose only problem is that they can't speak; but for users who can't listen to the message and don't know to hit keys (which doesn't have to be an extreme case, but could also be the victim of a stroke or other medical emergency), it doesn't offer much help. Authorities are working on a text-based system for people with hearing and speech impediments, as they should, but again, that leaves many incapacitated people out in the cold. There will surely be a search for some technological solution to the problem, but maybe what's needed is some more common sense. For instance, is it very well publicized that people should hit the 5 key if they can't speak? Why not advertise that and make it more well known as a start? Inevitably, this sort of case will attract a lot of attention to the supposed technical shortcomings of the emergency call system, and indeed, it's something that should be a target for constant improvement. But the solutions to consider shouldn't only be technical ones.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    mike, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 2:10am

    999 call common sense

    If someone is being abducted and actually has the sense to covertly call the emergency line then why not just track the gps signal? Would it not make sense for ALL countries to be able to transmit the unique signal of someone's phone to a police car? dispatch the car and have the signal sent to the computer on the police car's computer so they can track the the gps location of the abductee.

    The technology is available so all thats left is IF the country is WILLING to upgrade the cars or to acquire a few new units capable of such tasks

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 2:35am

    unfortunately common sense is a scarce resource in our days, so perhaps technology can help compensate on this lack0

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    peter (profile), Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 2:42am

    Devaluating Emergency Calls

    I hope that the call handling hardware (ACD?) is capable of handling a preemptive press of a '5'. Then it would make sense to dial 999 [pause] 5. This I will try if I'm ever unfortunate enough to need it.

    One problem in handling emergency calls is the number of hoax and unintentional calls: hence, calls are treated by the (human and tech) system as probably valid but possibly hoax/unintentional.

    A second problem is the nuimber of trivial emergency calls that are made. Some are almost incredible, e.g: a woman dialled 999 to report that her rabbit had the wrong ears, it has emerged.

    After buying the bunny, the woman found that its ears were not floppy as promised on the newspaper advert.

    She called the emergency number to complain about the imperfect pet.

    Amongst other nuisance calls revealed by the Central Scotland Police based in Stirling were two people who dialled 999 after being splashed by cars in wet weather.

    When told it was inappropriate to use the number for the soaking, one woman verbally abused the call handler.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 3:51am

    Re: 999 call common sense

    gps = Global Positioning Satellite: not something that the average mobile has, and even the ones that do can't really transmit their location.
    However it is possible to estimate a mobile's position by triangulating their position based on GSM (mobile) signal strength. This information is allready used by emergency services, but it has nothing to do with police vehicles and more to do with the network provider.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Chronno S. Trigger, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 5:17am

    Re: Re: 999 call common sense

    GPS stands for Global Positioning System. Most cell phones do have this ability. It can be disabled, enabled only for emergency calls, or just always on.

    On another note, how is this handled in the US? As far as I know, we don't even have that dial 5 option.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Nick, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 5:36am

    911 & GPS

    I am a 911 dispatcher in a Small County in the USA and Phase II 911 (where we get lattitude/longitude coordinates) is great, when it works. We still receive about 50% of our cell 911 calls as Phase I (no coordinates). In order for it to work; the phone, cell site/tower, & cell company must all support it. Some phone companies (ie. Verizon) use GPS transmitters in the phone, and some companies triangulate the position between towers. In order for the latter to work, you have to be in range of 3 towers at once.

    I had never heard of the press 5 thing myself and I have been doing this for almost 5 years. We send someone every time on a silent call if we have a location, you don't have to press 5 or tap the phone. We also have TTY capability for those persons with hearing/speaking disabilities.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Luci, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 6:02am

    Re: Re: Re: 999 call common sense

    I'm unsure how this might be handled elsewhere in the US, but where I live the police are dispatched to the location the silent call came from, if landline. Otherwise, they attempt to triangulate the origination of the cell call by asking the provider what towers were activated by the call. A call usually uses more than one tower.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    eclecticdave (profile), Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 6:23am

    mobiles that self dial


    I'm in the UK and I've certainly never heard of the '5-key' thing. Definitely should be publicised more.

    AIUI, the reason why silent calls are often ignored in the UK, rather than chased up, is that most mobile phones here are designed to allow the user to dial 999 even if the phone keypad is locked. This has the unfortunate side effect that some models of phone can dial 999 on their own by being jostled in a person's pocket or bag.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    matt, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 9:11am

    Re: 911 & GPS

    I actually write software for testing phase II E911 systems in the US. CDMA2000 carriers like Verizon and Sprint use Assisted GPS to determine the location - a combination of GPS and network triangulation. All CDMA2000 phones have a GPS receiver because it is required to handle hand offs between cells and is part of the Qualcomm chipset. This type of system yields the best accuracy, but the problem with GPS is unless you are outside in an open space with a clear line of sight to the sky, it is not very reliable.

    GSM carriers on the other hand, use only network based triangulation and isn't very accurate. The FCC E911 location accuracy requirements for GSM carriers is significantly lower than that of CDMA carriers. Seeing as Europe uses only GSM, the usefulness of the system would have been questionable. I would imagine though, that newer WCDMA phones would be capable of assisted GPS since it is virtually identical to CDMA2000 and also requires a GPS receiver.

    One problem with phase II and this type of situation though is the location is usual only calculated when the call is first made, and not perpetually updated. The call taker can rebid to get the new location, but to save network bandwidth, many carriers cache the location and only repeat the original calculation. Kinda stupid in my opinion.

    But yeah, it has always been my understanding that in the US the standard procedure is to dispatch help in the case of a silent call, hangup, or even in the case of a 'nevermind'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 9:51am

    In NJ if the police receive a 911 call and don't actually speak to the person, the police must go to the location.

    Problem solved.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Jus Lookin, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 10:24am

    Simple If Desired

    For those who can't respond:
    "This call will activate an emergency response in X time..."
    For those who can still use the phone:
    Three of any number indicates an SOS - just like in the wilderness.
    But it sounds like bureaucracy that doesn't want to commit reasources without ID.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Jesse, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 11:02am

    In Canada if you call and leave the phone off the hook they just send a cop car. What's wrong with that?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 11:27am

    Um people, if the person is using a cell, you can't just "send a cop car". The article itself deals with a situation where the women was on a CELL. Think first, type later.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 2:46pm

    "Think first, type later."

    Ummm, no, the article doesn't deal with the fact that the woman was on a cell, it deals with the system of transferring callers to an automated system if they don't speak after calling.

    But nice try at being a dick.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Dec 2nd, 2008 @ 8:37pm


    And since when is it hard to find a farking cell. My question is "What about disconnect calls"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    nasch, Dec 3rd, 2008 @ 8:07am

    Re: Re: Re: 999 call common sense

    I doubt most cell phones have GPS, in fact I would be extremely surprised if they do. I believe in the US all of them by law must now have e911, which uses cell tower triangulation and not satellites, as the other responder indicated.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. identicon
    david, Jan 26th, 2009 @ 10:56pm

    Here is what 911 states about not being able to speak


    Stay calm.

    Dial 911.

    Either leave the phone hanging or make some sort of noise to let the dispatcher know there is a real emergency.

    With Enhanced 911 your address is provided to the call taker and they can go ahead and dispatch police, fire or medical assistance to your location even if they do not hear you speak.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    neer, Feb 7th, 2009 @ 3:38am

    999 calls

    hi there can anyone tell me how long the system keep record of 999 calls made by public??

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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