A Case Study of Accessibility: 999BSL

In this blog, Katie Hanson, Senior Consumer Affairs Manager at Ofcom UK, explains 999BSL – a service introduced in 2022 that allows deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users to access emergency services in their first language. How does 999BSL work, and what was the process of consulting sign language users to ensure the service met their needs? What are the key requirements for 999BSL and how does it ensure equivalent access? What were the challenges, and how did the service overcome these? Find out more below.

In this blog, Katie Hanson, Senior Consumer Affairs Manager at Ofcom UK, explains 999BSL – a service introduced in 2022 that allows deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users to access emergency services in their first language. How does 999BSL work, and what was the process of consulting sign language users to ensure the service met their needs? What are the key requirements for 999BSL and how does it ensure equivalent access? What were the challenges, and how did the service overcome these? Find out more below.

Improving deaf people’s access to the emergency services

Since 2022, deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users in the UK have been able to call the emergency services in their first language.

The UK communications regulator Ofcom has required telecoms providers to provide and fund an emergency video relay service, 999BSL, available via a dedicated mobile app and website.

How 999BSL works

A deaf person makes a video call to a sign language interpreter in a call centre. The interpreter translates what the deaf person is signing into spoken English for the emergency services, and signs what the emergency services are saying to the deaf person.

Being able to use their first language makes it easier for deaf sign language users to call for help in emergencies. Users can describe the nature of the emergency and understand potentially life-saving instructions from the emergency services.

999BSL is supplied by a specialist third party. Users need a connected device such as a smartphone, tablet or computer and a fixed or mobile data connection. Data used to make the video call must be zero-rated so that calls are free of charge.

Consulting sign language users

Ofcom carried out a public consultation in BSL and English about our proposal and invited people to respond in BSL or written English. We had several responses from deaf people.

Deaf people told us that users should not need to register or use a password to use 999BSL. We took account of this when setting our rules and said that registration must not be required. Deaf people also told us that the existing emergency text relay and emergency SMS services were valuable. They both remain available, alongside 999BSL.

The responses we received from deaf BSL users helped us to design a service that meets the needs of deaf citizens, and we are grateful to the people who took the time to respond.

Some key requirements for 999BSL

  • Available 24 hours a day
  • Free at the point of use, including zero-rating of data
  • No registration required
  • Location information equivalent to voice emergency calls
  • Qualified and experienced sign language interpreters
  • Parallel text channel for things like names and addresses

Equivalence

Our aim throughout the project was for deaf BSL users to have functionally equivalent access to the emergency services. However, because video communications are not the same as telephone calls (for example, because they do not present a telephone number), this raised some challenges.

Challenge 1: call-backs

The emergency services sometimes need to call users back. 999BSL enables call-backs to be made via the app or website. This is equivalent to traditional voice emergency calls.

Challenge 2: paying for the service

Because video calls do not dial a number on the telephone network, billing to the caller’s communications provider cannot be per call (as it is for voice emergency calls in the UK). A cost sharing agreement therefore had to be drawn up by regulated firms, and the 999BSL supplier is required to have a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms clause in its contract with regulated firms. BT, which handles voice emergency calls in the UK, agreed to act as a wholesaler and to recover the costs of 999BSL alongside the costs of other emergency calls.

Challenge 3: location information

Where permitted by the end-user in their app and/or device settings, the location of the call is automatically obtained from the mobile phone or other device being used by the end-user. The interpreters confirm the validity of this location information as part of their standard call answering procedure.

Challenge 4: call recording

We considered that it was necessary to record the video, as well as the audio, of 999BSL calls for equivalence with voice emergency calls. Recordings are retained for the same length of time as for emergency voice calls.

Challenge 4: net neutrality

Data used for 999BSL calls must be zero-rated. However, we did not require data traffic for 999BSL to be prioritised over other forms of internet data traffic due to prevailing net neutrality obligations.

Challenge 5: the scope of the obligations on regulated firms

Because 999BSL requires a data connection, we placed obligations on all regulated firms that provide internet access services, not just those providing voice communications services alongside internet access. This brought some regulated firms into scope for emergency number requirements for the first time.

999BSL saving lives in emergencies

999 BSL has been welcomed by the emergency services in the UK and is having a positive impact. For example, senior coastguard Jordan Grebby took a 999BSL call in July 2022. The interpreter explained that the call was from a deaf BSL user, and the deaf caller reported two people on an inflatable boat being blown out to sea at Bridlington in Yorkshire. Jordan said:

“I was able to get help sent quickly – with the Bridlington Coastguard Rescue Team and RNLI lifeguards responding – and ensure everyone got back to shore safely. We’re very grateful for the call, which came in at the right time to make sure we got teams to bring them back before they were blown too far offshore. The lifeguards were able to reach them quickly. The call came just before the two were in serious danger, they were being pulled out to sea and if they had got further, they could have been in real trouble.”

This story demonstrates that improving access to the emergency services benefits everyone, not just disabled people. The deaf citizen who made the call helped to rescue two people that day, and was able to do so because of 999BSL.

Further reading

Initial consultation (chapter 10 of the EECC consultation), December 2019

Further consultation on emergency video relay, February 2021

Final statement, including approval criteria for the service, June 2021

Katie Hanson
Senior Consumer Affairs Manager at Ofcom UK | + posts

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