The Reality of Accessible Emergency Services

In February this year, France announced the launch of Total Conversation on the 114 emergency number. This platform – available online and as an app in both spoken and sign language – allows people with disabilities to communicate with emergency services using video and text. The launch represents a huge step forward for accessibility, particularly for the over 80,000 profoundly deaf French citizens.[1] But it also highlights just how difficult it has been – and still is in many countries in Europe – for people with disabilities to access help in times of emergency. What does the future hold for accessible emergency services in Europe?

Living with a disability in Europe

There are 80 million people with disabilities in the Europe[2] and many cannot easily alert emergency services when in danger, as the principle way of communicating with emergency services is via voice call. And although some countries now offer other methods to contact help in an emergency, such as SMS, accessibility remains far from equal across Europe. Head over to the Netherlands, you’ll find video calls, SMS and real-time text at people’s disposal. Meanwhile in Greece, the only option for citizens with hearing impairments to request urgent help is via fax. In times of emergency, limited communication options are leaving people with disabilities particularly vulnerable. At EENA, we believe that this needs to change.

Each year, EENA publishes a report on emergency services. Find out what services your EU country provides to people with disabilities here.

EU legislation in a nutshell

How is the European Union (EU) addressing the disparity? We’ve seen several legislative steps over the last years in the direction of equal access to emergency services, but more still needs to be done. Previous legislation like the Universal Service Directive has been somewhat vague when it comes to the responsibilities of Member States. The recent European Electronic Communications Code (EECC) goes some way to clarify this: access to end-users with disabilities must be available through emergency communications. That is to say: communications that do not include only voice, but also SMS, video, messaging and others.

Add to this the new Accessibility Act, which will enter into force in the coming weeks. The Act has further defined the obligations of those involved in emergency communications with two key points. Firstly, telecommunications providers must ensure that emergency communications services are accessible. Concretely, this means providing text and Total Conversation services in addition to voice calls. Secondly, and importantly, Member States will all need to ensure that people with disabilities visiting their country from abroad can access emergency services on an equivalent basis to other users. Many solutions currently provided by Member States involve pre-registration, for example, which makes it extremely difficult for visitors to make use of them.

The way forward

The EECC and the Accessibility Act represent steps forward for accessibility, but Member States still need to implement the solutions. As we’ve seen, there are already some ad-hoc solutions in various countries. Although these represent significant progress, we must also consider their limitations. What options are available to countries committing to accessible emergency response?

In many European countries, such as Belgium, Italy and Ireland, emergency SMS services are set up specifically for people with disabilities. For those unable or finding it difficult to communicate by voice, the SMS service can be lifesaving in times of emergency, but it has its shortcomings. In many cases, people wishing to use the service must pre-register or request the relevant numbers from the authorities. Similarly, specialised apps for each country (or region), such as those launched in Malta, Spain and Portugal, also often require pre-registration and, of course, to be downloaded. People with disabilities therefore are not granted to same level of access as other end-users, who can simply call 112 at anytime, anywhere in Europe, without preparatory actions.

SMS also brings the challenge of locating the person in danger. 15 countries have already deployed Advanced Mobile Location, which locates an emergency caller using their mobile phone location services. This number is about to get a lot higher, as new EU legislation has made it mandatory for Member States to make use of mobile location during emergencies. But people who are unable to contact emergency services via voice call cannot benefit from this lifesaving technology. In countries where SMS services are used, some emergency organisations have even opted to ask callers to start with a voice call so that they can locate them.

The use of SMS services and specialised apps are a good start for countries in terms of improving accessibility, but we should not stop there. As we’ve already seen in France, options such as Total Conversation can transform the way people with disabilities request urgent help. Total Conversation means that people can communicate simultaneously using video, voice and text services in real time. Importantly, this service was developed and supported by the deaf and hard of hearing community, but it can also respond to the needs of a variety of disabilities, including speech and cognitive disabilities, allowing access on an equal basis to other citizens.

Paving the way for accessible services

Services like Total Conversation and its components, including text chat and video call, are internet-based communications. But as most emergency services are primarily reached by voice call, they simply not able to receive this type of data and are primarily reached by voice call. In fact, the majority of EU countries are not even measuring the percentage of calls they receive from IP networks: accessible emergency services are not taken seriously.

This is where Next Generation 112 (NG112) steps in. Next Generation 112 is all about making use of Internet Protocol (IP) calls so that citizens in danger can benefit from all the technologies we use every day, whether it’s a messenger service or even connected objects. IP calls can carry much more varied data than traditional voice calls, including text, photos, video and other data.

Not only does NG112 mean that emergency services are ready to receive the necessary data for services such as Total Conversation, it also means that we can continue to innovate and develop accessible services based on new technologies. If emergency centres are technologically prepared, there are a multitude of possibilities for accessible emergency response. What if emergency services could instantly receive the health data of someone requesting urgent help? How about if visually impaired citizens could be warned of nearby emergencies through their home speakers? EENA has just launched a new project to test various use cases of NG112 in real life environments, building the practical foundations for Next Generation response in Europe and harnessing technology’s lifesaving potential.

Making accessible emergency services a reality

Deaf and hard of hearing citizens represent 9% of the EU’s population.[3] Other citizens, including those with speech and cognitive disabilities, may also find difficulties when alerting of an emergency, which makes the total population lacking equal access even higher. Although there have been steps forward to close this gap, there is still a lot left to be done. Accessible emergency services are within our grasp: the legislative framework and the technology are there. What we now need is the commitment to put it into practice and to advance towards equal accessibility for all citizens.