Telephone and broadband companies will be required to provide video relays using British Sign Language (BSL) to emergency services from next year.
Communications regulator Ofcom has announced the new rules, saying they build on the existing regulation under which people with hearing or speech impairments can communicate with others through an approved text relay service and contact emergency services through a text message to 999.
It said the existing services rely on written English that can lead to misunderstandings in emergency situations, and that it wants BSL users to have the same access as other people to emergency services.
The requirement will be for telephone and broadband firms to offer a free, 24/7 video relay for BSL users so they can better describe the nature of an emergency and understand any instructions.
A deaf person will be able to make a video call to a qualified and experienced interpreter who is in a call centre. The interpreter will translate what the deaf person is signing into spoken English for the emergency services to hear, and sign what the emergency services are saying to the deaf person.
Any data that customers use to make the video call will be ‘zero rated’ so the service will be free for the user – just as other emergency calls are.
Telecoms firms can either deliver the service themselves or contract another organisation to do so, but it must be approved by Ofcom under criteria it is laying out.
It said potential suppliers should send applications by 1 October, following which it will consult on any proposal to approve a service, and they should be available by 17 June 2022.
Dedicated apps and websites also need to be designed, and telecoms companies will need time to contract with the provider of an approved service and prepare for implementation.
The rule has been developed from a public consultation that included the use of BSL videos and invitations to respond in BSL or English. People will not need to register to use the service.
The text relay and emergency SMS services will be retained.
Image from iStock, Ben Gingell