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Usage of emergency SMS helpline for speech-, hearing-impaired falls

Voluntary welfare organisations attribute the decline partly to the emergence of other methods of communication such as WhatsApp and Skype.

SINGAPORE: An emergency service that allows the speech- and hearing-impaired to send a distress alert via short message service (SMS) to the police has seen a general decline in usage in recent years.

Voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) have attributed the trend to the emergence of other methods of communication and users not seeing the immediate need to register for such a service.

Introduced in 2008, the Emergency SMS Helpline is a joint initiative between the Singapore Police Force and the National Council of Social Service. Similar to the existing emergency hotline – 999 – the service allows those who cannot hear or speak to send a distress call via SMS to 70999.

Only those who registered for the service with the National Council of Social Service via their VWOs – SG Enable, Canossian School, Lighthouse School, Singapore Association for the Deaf and TOUCH Silent Club – can use the helpline.

In a Facebook post last month, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong wrote that he was glad to learn about this emergency service here after reading an article about telcos in the United States offering a text-to-911 service for people who could not hear or speak to report an emergency.

Figures from the police showed that the number of SMSes they received peaked in 2010, with 415 messages from registered users. While the numbers have fluctuated over the years, the police last year received only 28 emergency SMSes.

TOUCH Silent Club said the fall could be due to users adopting other technology to reach others during emergencies. Ms Ang Chiew Geok, the club’s assistant manager, said: “The decline could be due to several reasons, including the popularity of video calls among the deaf in recent years, which makes it easier for them to connect to others to help them in times of emergency.”

Nearly 400 – or more than 82 per cent – of the club’s clients are registered users of the service.

Meanwhile, the Singapore Association for the Deaf noted that some of its new clients do not see the immediate need to register for the service, thinking that they would rarely need to call the police, fire or ambulance services. Its spokesperson said most of its clients would usually contact others for help via SMS, WhatsApp and Skype. Currently, more than 1,400 of the association’s clients are registered users of the service.

Mr Alan Wong, a TOUCH Silent Club client who is hearing-impaired, used the service two years ago when he suspected a thief was rummaging inside a vehicle in a carpark. The police replied quickly and arrived within 10 minutes, he said.

Mr Wong added that he felt safe and excited when he was able to communicate with the police through the helpline and hoped that more deaf people can learn about the service.

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