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TMT Legal Update: Ofcom releases statement on the handling of emergency calls by emergency call handling agents

    • Technology, Media and Telecoms - Telecoms


    Précis – In the UK certain communications providers are required to enable access to emergency organisations through emergency call numbers 112 and 999 as well as accurate and reliable caller location information. In a statement entitled “GC4 and the performance of emergency call handling agents” 13 June 2013 (Statement) Ofcom set out the performance standards that call handling agents are required to maintain in order for communications providers to satisfy their obligations under General Condition 4 of the General Conditions of Entitlement.

    What? Under Article 26 of the Universal Service Directive, National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) are required to ensure that entities providing customers with the ability to make calls to telephone numbers in the national numbering plan provide access to emergency organisations through the emergency call numbers 112 and 999. In addition NRAs are required to make caller location information available free of charge to the authority handling emergency calls as soon as the call reaches the authority. Ofcom satisfies this obligation through the requirements set out in the General Conditions of Entitlement, and in particular General Condition 4.

    On 12 December 2012 Ofcom published a consultation entitled “Emergency call handling agent performance” (Consultation) where it set out the performance standard it would expect to be met by communications providers and their call handling agents. Ofcom’s Statement confirms the recommendations made in the Consultation, albeit with slight amendments to the wording.

    So what? Communications providers are free to perform the handling and forwarding of emergency calls to the appropriate emergency authority themselves. However, given the complexities and critical importance of this function industry practice has evolved into call handling agents undertaking this role. In the UK BT Group and Vodafone currently perform these functions.

    The handling of emergency calls is not straight forward as emergency authorities have their own dispatch and control centres distributed across the country and is further complicated by the critical nature of the calls themselves. The call handling agent function is but one part of a chain linking the caller to the relevant emergency authority. Calls are usually handled within seconds by call handling agents and then within seconds by the relevant emergency authority. However, delays can arise for a number of reasons such as network malfunctions, excessive call volumes, or both.

    Guidance on the call handling agent processes and procedures can be found in the PECS Code which is administered by the 999/112 Liaison Committee (a cross industry body). However, it is not the purpose of the PECS Code to set out the performance standards expected to ensure the proper functioning of the emergency call system in accordance with the General Conditions of Entitlement. Ofcom has therefore set out in the Statement the matters that it expects communications providers to address in circumstances where they are using a call handling agent to meet their obligations under GC4, although responsibility will ultimately rest with the communications provider for compliance with GC4. The criteria that Ofcom has set out includes:

    • Overarching Principle – the handling of emergency calls is of the utmost importance and Ofcom expects call handling agents to deliver services to an appropriately high standard;
    • a call answering performance target of 95% within 5 seconds;
    • a service availability target of 99.999%;
    • the use of automated call answering systems is to be avoided;
    • appropriate organisational structures, operational processes, networks and systems to be put in place that are continually monitored/managed to ensure they remain effective;
    • examples of expectations under particular conditions that should be mitigated (including localised events affecting the call handling agent directly, wide-scale national events affecting the call handling agent directly and major incidents affecting the emergency service as a whole);
    • to assist in Ofcom’s ongoing monitoring of call handling performance and to help identify whether Ofcom’s expectations remain appropriate and effective; and
    • an expectation that the contractual arrangement between a communications provider and a call handling agent contains provisions enabling regular audits and reviews of relevant processes, networks and systems.

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