Emergency video relay

Published: 31 March 2023

Deaf British Sign Language (BSL) users can now call the emergency services in their first language.

Ofcom requires telecoms providers to make emergency video relay available in the UK. This will make it easier for deaf BSL users to get the help they need, such as police, ambulance or fire brigade, in emergencies.

Emergency text relay and emergency SMS will continue to be available alongside emergency video relay.

We would like to thank the deaf people who were involved in campaigning for this change, and who have provided advice to Ofcom.

To use emergency video relay, you will need a connected device such as a smartphone, tablet or computer. You can access emergency video relay via the 999BSL website or download the dedicated app.

Five things you should know about emergency video relay

  • It's available 24 hours a day
  • It's free to use
  • Emergency services treat 999 BSL calls exactly the same as voice 999 calls: they have the same priority and are answered by the same emergency control room staff
  • When you make an emergency video relay call, your location is normally provided to the emergency services (again, just like a voice 999 call)
  • The service is staffed by qualified and experienced interpreters

This video has been made by Ofcom. We are the UK’s regulator for communications services including broadband, home phone and mobile services, as well as TV, radio and post.

It is possible that people may make emergency video relay calls from outside the UK, but the calls can only be connected to UK 999 control rooms. Voice 999 calls are sometimes received from outside the UK, e.g. from mobile phones close to the Irish border. These calls are dealt with by UK emergency authorities, so this is equivalent.

Using Wi-Fi on a train or in a hotel may require registration. We cannot control how private businesses manage their networks. However, emergency video relay must be zero-rated under Ofcom rules, so users should be able to use their own devices using mobile data free of charge, without running out of data or being charged extra.

If 999BSL interpreters are familiar with Irish Sign Language, they are free to use it if this benefits a deaf caller in an emergency situation. However, Ofcom has not required calls to be answered in Irish Sign Language.

Irish Sign Language uses one-handed fingerspelling. If a caller were to use one-handed fingerspelling and couldn’t easily be understood by the interpreter, there is the option of using the text channel in the app for things like names and addresses. The text channel will also be useful for two-handed fingerspellers who are holding a mobile phone in one hand.

Smartphones have a data connection to enable video calling. To use 999BSL, or make any video call, you need a minimum of third generation 3G. Most people in the UK now have phones that work on 4G or 5G. These give much better quality video calls.

The 3G networks in the UK are gradually being switched off over the next few years. This makes more space for 4G and 5G, which are faster and more reliable.

If you have a 3G phone, your mobile provider will contact you to tell you that you need a new handset that works on 4G or 5G. You should start to receive text messages (SMS) or emails three to six months before switch-off. There should also be information on your mobile provider’s website. If you currently have 4G or 5G then you do not need to do anything.

Ofcom does not have a formal role in 3G switch-off, but we have said that we expect mobile providers to:

  • give customers adequate notice so that people who are affected can acquire and set up new handsets. We think that three to six months’ notice is right;
  • ensure communications are simple and clear, with information about what customers need to do to keep using their services;
  • use a range of communication methods, use formats that reflect the needs of customers and send more reminders as switch-off gets closer;
  • provide extra help to customers that need it, particularly people who may be struggling financially; and
  • provide information to customers about roaming when travelling abroad.
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