I recently read an article about FCC accelerating Text-To-911 services in the US. Four major carriers have apparently signed up to provide this service. I also remembered a similar demand from FCC, around a decade back, for identifying the location of 911 callers on mobile and IP devices.
There are some interesting challenges when it comes to using SMS for emergency requirements, as well as, some compelling use cases. There is potential for some extensions to emergency services too.
One of the important aspects to remember is that SMS is a store-and-forward system, like emails are. They may not be delivered in realtime. However, compared to the email situation, SMS is easier to initiate and can be initiated even under time-critical emergencies.
The second important aspect about SMS is that it is designed in such a way that it may not be delivered (even after a configurable number of re-attempts). This is far more serious and, in the suggested workaround, it has apparently been suggested by FCC that Delivery Failure notification be given back to the user asking them to change to Voice Calls.
The Use Cases
Given the above challenges, why would anybody attempt to create a dependency on so unreliable a medium for Emergency Services? There are definitely some compelling use cases.
Firstly, this is a method of communication that is widely used by users nowadays. Having an emergency service available on this is an important hygiene.
Secondly, it improves accessibility for emergency services. Through SMS, it would be possible now for speech impaired individuals to access emergency services too.
Last, but not by any stretch of imagination the least, is the fact that this is a noiseless medium and can be very suitable for use in situations where an individual is in such a danger that making any noise could give away their location and endanger them.
While it is good that FCC is trying to integrate this 20 year old communication capability with emergency services, it is also important to look at the modern phone, with all its features and capabilities comprehensively and recommend solutions that should be put in place.
A Touch Screen App
Particularly, devices with tactile interface are emerging to be more and more widespread in usage. This interface has already spawned off new ways of interacting with machines for tasks ranging from productivity to gaming.
So, it is conceivable that there is a touch screen App with just a button being displayed being made available. The user should either keep the button pressed for 10-15 seconds or should tap “… — …”, the Morse Code for SOS. (Some specific user action is necessitated to prevent accidental invocation of emergency services).
Another valuable aid in a mobile nowadays is the camera. Both video recording, still photography and even the ability to enhance images digitally have become available in a widespread manner.
The camera can be a valuable aid for an immediate situation assessment when Emergency Response is launched. This can help agencies provide accurate guidance to a victim seeking help, as well as, enable the responding team to move in to a situation without jeopardising their own safety.
In many Service Providers, for the sake of providing customer support and content services, investments have been made on taking control of devices to help configure them and help end users to use their devices without interruption and obviating the need for users to visit the Service Provider premises or putting out a truck roll.
Similar mechanism at the emergency response centre would enable the centre to take charge of the mobile device (with/without permissions from the user) to ensure that a user in trauma or inability to move is not put to additional discomfort of having to turn on camera, other features etc.
Most devices incorporate a speakerphone feature and have a speaker that can be audible without needing to hold it close to the ear.
An app, which, when invoked, gives out out an audible sound – can even be an intelligible “Over Here” – at periodic intervals (to conserve battery), would be very helpful in situations where visibility is poor and help response team reach the exact location even if the victim is unconscious.
Tones & Profile
I remember watching a movie in which one of the characters hiding and trying to escape from a gun toting gang is given away by the SMS alert, by the very message from the party that is coming in to rescue. Although, this is a dramatisation, it is not inconceivable.
Similarly, there could be situations wherein it may be preferable to have a louder than normal alert tone. So, one can conclude that a profile each for the Silence mode & Loud mode of Emergency should be activated easily by the person reaching out for emergency.
Looking at all the above, and realising the potential of the mobile phone in assisting in emergencies, I feel that instead of trying only to integrate SMS with Emergency Services, it would be important to focus on how the intelligent and feature rich device can be instantaneously set into an emergency mode – with all the above-mentioned features appropriately set.
Perhaps the Touch Screen app mentioned above could act as the trigger…