A man using sign language while on a video call on a laptop

New 999 video call service launches for sign language users

Published: 13 December 2022
Last updated: 16 March 2023

British Sign Language users can now contact the emergency services by making a video call, under new Ofcom rules that come into force today.

Ofcom wants British Sign Language (BSL) users to have equivalent access to the emergency services. So, last year we announced new rules introducing a free, 24/7 video relay service for BSL users to contact the emergency services, via a dedicated mobile app and website.

Since then, we have approved an emergency video relay service by Sign Language Interactions, and allowed time to design the dedicated app and website. Our rules come into force today, and the new service – called 999 BSL – has now launched.

Enabling BSL users to use their first language will make it easier for them to call for help in emergencies. They will be better able to describe the nature of the emergency and understand potentially life-saving instructions from the emergency services.

Historically, people with hearing or speech impairments have been able to contact the emergency services via text relay or by sending a text message (SMS) to 999. However, this relies on written English, which can lead to misunderstandings for BSL users in emergency situations.

You can go for years without needing to call 999. But knowing you can call for help on your mobile phone is something we should all be able to rely on, and something many of us take for granted.

Our new rules mean deaf people can now make a video call in an emergency, which will benefit everyone and save lives.

Katie Hanson, Senior Consumer Policy Manager at Ofcom

How it works

A deaf person can make a video call to a qualified and experienced BSL interpreter who is in a call centre. The interpreter translates what the deaf person is signing into spoken English for the emergency services to hear, and signs what the emergency services are saying to the deaf person.

Any data that customers use to make the video call should be ‘zero rated’ and therefore the service should be free for the user – just as other emergency calls are.

Consulting sign language users

As part of Ofcom’s public consultation process to introduce the new service, we consulted in BSL and English and invited people to respond in writing, or in BSL. We had many responses in support of the proposals.

Some deaf people told us that users should not need to register or use a password to use emergency video relay. We took account of this in our new rules, and people will not need to register to use the service.

Deaf people also told us that the existing text relay and emergency SMS services are important and must be retained. They will both continue to be available, alongside the new emergency video relay service.

We would like to thank everyone who gave us their input and advice as part of this process.

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