How the Push for Inclusive Emergency Communications is Driving Technological Breakthroughs

While disability affects a high proportion of the population, accessible emergency services are not available to all. But new technology is turning the tide – ushering in a new wave of services that are making emergency responses faster, easier, and more efficient.

Truthfully, most of us have never actually thought about what we’d do if we needed to contact emergency services – whether that be 112, 999, 911, 000 or another number. For the vast majority, we’ve also never considered how we would contact emergency services if we had a disability that affected communication, such as being hard of hearing or visually impaired. Yet while disability affects a high proportion of the population, accessible emergency services are not available to all. But new technology is turning the tide – ushering in a new wave of services that are making emergency responses faster, easier, and more efficient.

Disability affects 15-20% of every country’s population: there are at least 650 million persons with disabilities worldwide, and 100 million persons with disabilities in the European Union alone. 9% of Europe’s population is deaf or hard of hearing (according to the World Bank). It is safe to assume that, with 153 million calls made to 112 in the EU in 2022 alone (European Commission 2022 112 Implementation Report), it is likely that some of the deaf or hard of hearing population are likely to need to contact emergency services at some point in their lives. It may surprise readers to know that regardless of this, most Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) – where emergency communications are handled – still only accept voice calls. For those who are deaf, hard of hearing, or have a speech impediment, voice calls may be extremely difficult or impossible.

You may already be considering solutions to this – perhaps texts, or video calls with operators who can use sign language. In an ideal world, PSAPs would flick a switch and the ability to text or video call during an emergency would be activated seamlessly. Sadly, this is not the case for several reasons. The systems used in PSAPs for emergency communications are complex and require significant training for each call-taker to fully understand and use. Any upgrade, however small, would require training the entire staff again: it is easy to imagine the significant work it would take to train operators on an entirely new method of communication. New staff may be required who are fluent in sign language. There is inevitably a large cost associated with this, both in staff time and the upgrade of the actual system.

In the case of video communication, there is also the impact that this may have on the operator, who may have to witness violent or graphic scenes. Emergency responders frequently encounter distressing situations by voice call alone, and the advent of video calls introduces a visual dimension that can exacerbate the psychological strain. Witnessing traumatic incidents in real-time through video communication intensifies the emotional burden, potentially leading to compassion fatigue, burnout, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among operators. Recognizing the emotional challenges faced by emergency operators not only underscores the need for accessible communication technologies but also emphasizes the need to prioritise the mental well-being of those entrusted with public safety. The impact of elevating those traumatic calls to have both images as well as audio cannot be understated, and appropriate wellbeing protocols would also need to be put in place.

So what are the current solutions used? They vary, country by country. Some countries use a mobile application that citizens can download in advance of an emergency. An app may offer video calls, a sign language interpreter or text services (or a combination of some/all). Apps work well in that users are generally familiar with using mobile applications, and they can be specifically designed in cooperation with emergency services to meet accessibility needs. However, pre-registration inevitably means that some people will not have the app when they need it most – after all, very few of us think about emergencies before they happen to us. There is also the issue of apps only working in the region or country they are designed in, meaning deaf or hard of hearing travellers will have to download, register, and learn the functions of an app for every single place they visit.

Another option is Total Conversation: a universal and standardised set of communications that enables citizens to communicate through voice, video, and text from a variety of devices. The form of communication can be dictated by the needs of the citizen for that particular emergency. It has been developed by the deaf community and offers a standardised, fast, and mobile service that is tailored to the needs of both the emergency and the citizen using the service. However, the implementation of such a service is a challenge – in terms of cost, staffing, technical implementation, and more.

Real-Time Text (RTT) is one potential solution. Real-Time Text is a text-based mode of communication. It works by sending and receiving text character-by-character: characters are sent immediately as they are typed and are then displayed immediately to the receiving party (the user does not need to press send, as you would for a normal text message, but instead the message appears to the receiver character by character). In simple terms, imagine texting a friend – but as you type, they can see what you are writing and even when you delete text. For those unable to make voice calls to emergency services, RTT offers a considerable number of benefits. Perhaps most importantly, it does not require any kind of specialist device – RTT works on most modern handsets and doesn’t require the user to download any software. In what could be considered an improvement over even voice calls, both the caller and the operator don’t need to ‘take turns’ – both can type at the same time and transmit the messages they need to. With Next Generation emergency communications technology, there is also the potential to use both RTT and voice calls at the same time: transmitting information with more accuracy and less difficulty.

You may be wondering: are governments not pushing for technology like this to be implemented? Indeed, they are. The European Union has set out a series of criteria for accessible emergency communications that should start being applied not later than 2027. cross two separate pieces of legislation – the European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) and the European Accessibility Act (EEA), a clearer picture forms on the future of accessible communications within Europe. A guiding principle of the legislation is that people with disabilities should be able to access emergency service on an equivalent basis with non-disabled users, and awareness campaigns should feature what accessible means are available. At a minimum, RTT must be implemented, but PSAPs should respond with the same communication method that is received. Naturally, these communication methods must be free of charge for the user. With the deadline being next year, countries are already taking these criteria into consideration when designing accessible services.

While technical, it is also important to consider the role of IP technology and how the legal obligation to implement this is laying the groundwork for the introduction of RTT. Internet Protocol (IP) technology serves as the fundamental framework for transmitting data across digital networks. It is a standardized set of rules that enables devices to communicate with each other over the internet or any other interconnected network, using text, data, and audio, and video. In Europe, the EECC is already ensuring that EU Members States are preparing to switch their emergency communications systems over to IP technology.

Real-Time Text (RTT) is based on Internet Protocol (IP) technology, leveraging the same infrastructure that is increasingly being introduced across Europe due to legal obligations. As IP technology becomes more prevalent, implementing RTT becomes a natural progression within the existing digital infrastructure. RTT uses the same IP networks that support other communication services, making it easier to integrate into the current emergency response systems. This compatibility reduces the need for extensive infrastructure upgrades and investments, streamlining the implementation of RTT as a text-based mode of communication for emergency services.

What about outside of the EU? It is likely that many countries, even those outside of Europe, will follow the implementation process within the EU very closely as a blueprint for their own accessible services – even when not legally mandated to do so. Organisations such as the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) exist to act as knowledge platforms for issues such as these, and the implementation of accessible communications will remain a priority over the coming years.

In America, where the market for this technology is perhaps even more developed, organisations such as NENA are helping PSAPs to prepare with advice on technical implementation, cybersecurity, connection issues and how to launch the product effectively. There are PSAPs in the United States already using RTT as a result. In August 2022, the Texas 911 Center achieved a milestone with a fully working RTT system – with both the user, and the PSAP, able to communicate via RTT.

While we’ve already touched upon the psychological impact that enabling video calling may have on call-takers, RTT mitigates this to a certain extent. It allows for an accessible way of communicating without the additional psychological burden of witnessing potentially graphic scenes. Text, being a more straightforward mode of communication that we are used to in our everyday lives, requires less specialised training (although it is important to note that call-takers will, naturally, need to learn how to operate an RTT system). This reduces the time and resources spent on training call takers to adapt to new technologies.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to note is that this push for accessibility does not only benefit those with additional access needs, but the whole population. There are countless situations in which being able to access emergency services without needing to voice call, and therefore make a noise, would be of obvious benefit: domestic violence cases, acts of terrorism, or other events in which the user is hiding or trying to not make themselves known (such as home burglaries or kidnappings). And while many of us find the Gen Z obsession with avoiding phone calls a point of humour (a recent survey revealed that 19% of Gen Z respondents would only make a voice call in an emergency); perhaps the ability to text emergency services would get some users to act more quickly: and in an emergency, every second counts.

The reality is that, as a population, we are well established with the idea of communicating via text rather than voice calls. We expect good service and data coverage almost everywhere we go. It is natural that we will, too, will begin to expect those things when making an emergency call – and that ability is a lot closer than you may think.


This article was published in the Crisis Response Journal, the global information resource that covers all aspects of human-induced disasters or natural hazards, spanning response, disaster risk reduction, resilience, business continuity and security. You can find more about CRJ here.

Amy Leete
Communications and Press Manager at EENA

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