Accessing emergency services in a digital age

19 September 2017

Eighty years ago, the 999-call was introduced to offer the public quicker access to services in an emergency. Today, it is becoming more difficult to fulfil this role. This morning, BBC FOIs revealed that the number of abandoned 999 calls has more than doubled in the last year and that the number of abandoned 101 non-emergency calls has increased by 116 per cent. It’s time for change.

Emergency services do not know exactly what is driving the rise in demand. The growing and ageing population, increasing alcohol and mental health-related issues, and longer waiting times for primary care are all commonly cited causes. Another suggestion is that the rise in mobile phone usage is behind the surge in demand. For a significant incident, instead of only a few people having access to a phone, emergency services are inundated with dozens of calls reporting the same event.

Increasing connectivity may be a driver of demand, but it is also the source of solutions. In non-emergency situations, technology can make it easier for people to report incidents via alternative means, reducing pressure on call handlers. In January, the NHS trialled a new online service as a substitute to the 111 helpline, which acts as an “AI chatbot” to respond to patient needs and may be up to twelve times more effective than the current human-based system. With 111 calls on the rise and a fifth of calls this year deemed unnecessary, new innovations are needed to help call handlers respond to demand.

As more people move online, digital contact between frontline responders and the public is a better fit for consumer habits. West Yorkshire Police have demonstrated this with their pilot mobile app, allowing users to send in text, audio, images and video, with preliminary outcomes beyond the expectations of the team behind it. AlertCops in Spain works in a similar way, enabling users to report incidents in real time and online. It has helped protect those who feel uncomfortable using traditional methods to contact the police, such as the victims of sustained domestic abuse. These apps, which both support consumer needs and help services accurately respond to incidents through more detailed and diverse communication, should be welcomed.

Once digital channels are created, they can mitigate the burden on frontline responders by drawing on citizen skills in an emergency. A smartphone app created by the fire department of San Ramon in California is used to match those with CPR training to people in need and has been launched in cities across the USA. A similar app in Singapore has around 11,000 volunteers who have been deployed over 8,500 times, helping people in critical conditions before an ambulance arrives.

Research suggests UK citizens are ready for change. In June, a survey revealed that 83 per cent of Londoners wanted easier contact with the police through digital channels. A collaboration between Twitter and the Metropolitan Police indicated that certain crimes will only be reported through online channels. The UK must use and develop technological innovations to create a user-friendly emergency services system, in a digital age.

In our modern, multimedia world, where a growing number of citizens are ‘digital by default’, the reliance on emergency-service call centres no longer supports new instinctive modes of communication. It is time for smarter ways of accessing public services in a crisis.

Sarah Timmis, Research Assistant, Reform

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