British APCO NG999 White Paper

Next Generation (NG) 999 – what next?


British APCO has launched a white paper that has been drafted based on inputs gained from the NG999 Round Table event held in London in February 2023.   Attendees represented end users, commercial organisations, and government agencies; all our key stakeholder groups were present and actively participated. 

With the issues encountered with the UK 999 emergency communication system on Sunday 25th June, it is timely that this white paper highlights the once in a generation opportunity for a step change in the way 999 can exploit new technology and we ask for clear Government leadership to make it happen.  The Round Table event was well attended and attracted lively debate and insightful suggestions.  Attendees represented end users, commercial organisations, and government agencies; all our key stakeholder groups were present and actively participated. 

Executive Summary

The UK 999 system has evolved in technology terms since its introduction in 1937 but the public will not have noticed significant change in that time; it remains voice dominated and is yet to make the most of recent advances in technology.

The system is made up of multiple elements; the mobile and landline networks we use everyday form the backbone, there is a dedicated 999 infrastructure provided by British Telecom (BT) which ensures emergency calls are identified and passed through to the emergency services reliably, the control rooms of the emergency services then receive the calls on their systems before despatching responders.

Surprisingly there is no contract between the emergency services, Government or BT. The only formal contracts exist between BT and the commercial telecoms operators for BT to act as their 999 Call Handling Agent – the result is that commercial drivers (cost primarily) could prevent the introduction of the latest technology and thereby prevent the introduction of new developments which could improve public safety. The costs of the 999 system are a fraction of the £31billion UK telecoms sector.

The 999 system handles around 35 million 999 calls each year and is experiencing rapid year-on-year rises because of increasing use of mobile technology and automated notifications such as crash detection. This rising pressure, which has seen records broken this year, will eventually result in overload. Peaks of previous years quickly become the norm of the next and where call volumes exceeding 100k per day were considered exceptional a decade ago, in the last year days exceeding 100k were very regular and a record day exceeding 140k calls placed huge pressure on the BT and emergency service operators.

In the last couple of years BT, without fanfare, have replaced the dedicated 999 infrastructure. This means that the UK now has a highly resilient and modern technology base upon which to introduce new 999 capabilities for the public. Essentially, we now have the opportunity of a generation; we can use this new BT technology to implement the latest in communication methods or we can continue to accept a system which outwardly looks little different to that introduced in 1937. What is required is clear strategic leadership at the highest level to identify the steps required and to drive their adoption.

The Major Ask

There is ample expertise within the sector wide, 999 Liaison Committee to lead the UK to a world class 999 system. What is required is Government strategic direction to ensure that commercial pressures do not take precedence over public safety – Government needs to articulate a broad expectation of the level of technology the public deserves. The UK needs a government minister with clear responsibility for the 999-call handling system.  At present 5 Ministers have some responsibility for elements of the system; Minister for DSIT  (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) is responsible for telecoms, the Home Secretary for Police and Fire, the Health Minister for Ambulance, the Minister for Transport holds responsibility for Coast Guard as well as e-Call, and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, supported by the Minister for Cabinet Office, who has oversight of civil contingencies & resilience (including COBR – the Civil Contingencies Committee).

This fragmented position means there is a lack of clear ownership and strategic direction for the system which provides opportunity for the commercial elements (and the contractual relationship between BT and the commercial telecoms operators) to be driven by commercial drivers rather than public safety, British APCO feels strongly that it should be public safety supported by strong Ministerial leadership which should prevail.  With mounting pressure on the 999-call handling system now is the time to act.

The white paper can be accessed here