Should you be able to send emergency SMS to 000?

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Many organisations are using emergency SMS to communication crucial and critical information. The US Emergency Services system looks set to be overhauled to accommodate SMS, MMS and even video to be sent to 911 in case of an emergency. Should the Australian Emergency Services allow text messaging, too?

Text messaging emergency services is available in some shape or form among most emergency services worldwide. But these services are typically only designed for use by hearing or speech impaired individuals.

For example, in Australia today it is possible send SMS to the emergency services on 106. This is the text-based emergency number for people who are deaf, or who have a hearing or speech impairment. The service only operates using a textphone (TTY) or a computer with modem access, rather than via a mobile phone SMS. It is operated via the National Relay Service, which claims to be the world’s first national text-based emergency service.  There is a separate emergency call procedure for Speak and Listen callers who use mobile rather than a TTY, but they have to dial 1800 555 727 and then ask for Triple Zero (000).

Anyone calling 000 who does not speak when the operator asks the initial question: “Emergency. Police? Fire? Ambulance?” is directed to an interactive voice response (IVR) unit. There they are asked to press 55, but if after three requests there is no response, calls are disconnected.

So while provisions are currently in place to allow text messaging for the hearing and speech impaired to contact Emergency Services, they are far from easy or universally acknowledged.

A far better solution could be to improve on existing 000 technologies to allow SMS alerts, as the US has planned. The benefits for everyone are obvious and could undoubtedly save lives.

There are many times when sending a simple SMS message to 000, alerting relevant authorities to your situation may be far more appropriate than making a call, for example during incidences of domestic violence or burglary.

Older people may also be able to benefit from the adoption of the new text messaging service. As we age many of us will become hearing and speech impaired, so offering a text based way to contact emergency services could be extremely beneficial for older people. Australian seniors are among the most tech-savvy in the world, too, with research showing that the average Australian senior sends at least one text message every day.

As SMS becomes increasingly part of everyday communication, as well as the ease with which organisations can incorporate text message software, calling 000 via text seems like an obvious next-step for emergency services to make.