The National Emergency Helpline 999 was inaugurated in October 2016 by the ICT Division. The helpline has been increasingly popular ever since, increasing public welfare. This article focuses on the impact and necessity of upscaling the service.
Murad, a sailor from the Bay of Bengal, called National Emergency Helpline 999 for special immediate assistance. Later, 14 seamen were successfully evacuated from the lighter ship by the coast guard’s routine patrol ship, Shobuj Bangla, which responded to the accident scene.
Just like Murad and his colleagues, every day, around 30,000 people call the emergency helpline. Accidents, family feuds, fighting, fire incidents, gambling, land encroachment, medical services, sound pollution, terrorism, theft and violence against women are the major reasons why people seek help from 999.
National emergency helpline is an important step towards modernization. Because it can save lives that are distressed. Almost every modern country has a helpline. These services were introduced in England in 1937 and in the USA in 1968. In Bangladesh, the service should have been operational way earlier. But it has finally been implemented in 2016 and has been a popular service ever since. The national emergency helpline in the US and Canada can be reached by dialling 911. However, most European, African and Asian countries, such as UK, Switzerland, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar, Oman, Bahrain, Kenya, Ghana, Sudan, Zambia, Zimbabwe have 999 as their emergency helpline which Bangladesh has adopted.
According to official data, the emergency service unit has answered 4,32,04,080 calls since its inception in December 2017 until December 31, 2022. Of which 1,87,63,847 were erroneous, 23,00,955 were hoax calls, and 43,87,311 missed calls. 80 percent of the calls were regarding police-related services, while 10.29 percent and 8.76 percent were for fire and ambulance services.
- 20186867054 Calls
- 20198653988 Calls
- 20209859591 Calls
- 20219627865 Calls
- 20227830281 Calls
The unit now receives around 30,000 calls a day. Yearly, the unit received 3,65,301 calls in December 2017 that increased to 68,67,054 in 2018. 999 received 86,53,988 calls in 2019, 98,59,591 in 2020, which is the highest so far, 96,27,865 in 2021, and 78,30,281 in 2022. The service currently has the capacity to attend 100 phone calls at a time, which, considering the peak and off time of its utility, can be the reason for increased response time.
The Inception of Emergency Helpline 999
Before launching the national emergency helpline, 999 on December 12, 2017, different agencies had different helplines, instead of a unified one. For example, dialling 100 would link you to the Police, 101 to the Rapid Action Battalion, 102 to the fire department, 103 to the ambulance service, and 104 to the Access to Information (currently Aspire to Innovate, a2i) programme under the Prime Minister’s Office. In October 2016, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Division of the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) launched the 999 emergency hotline service as a pilot program. The service’s call centre was set-up at the Bangabandhu Hi-Tech City, Kaliakoir, Gazipur.
Until June 2017, it was operated on a trial basis by the ICT Division. Data obtained from the trial showed that most of the emergency calls are made for the service of police. Therefore, the management and operations of the helpline was handed over to Bangladesh Police in October, 2017. The Police has been operating the helpline since then, and coordinating with the ambulance services and fire department.
Scaling Up Emergency Helpline Service
The emergency helpline service integrates many programmes and remedies. User-centred design principles were used in the creation of CMS solutions, CRM solutions, dashboards, and reporting systems. The programme was created as a supplement to the government’s e-governance and mobile governance goals as part of establishing Digital Bangladesh. The portal establishes communication between the public and the ambulance service’s call centre. It also communicates with Bangladesh’s police command centres, as well as the control and dispatch centres for the fire department and direct assistance to the public.
Just receiving the phone calls is not what the helpline was established for. There has to be follow-ups and quick relay of information to the authorities concerned. If the helpline informs the nearest police station or fire station of the emergency including the location of emergency, the stations have to dispatch help that might require some time to respond to the emergency. To reduce the response time, Bangladesh police have installed Mobile Data Terminals (MDTs) in some patrol vehicles that can be tracked and informed of a nearby emergency, which reduces the dependence on police stations.
In order to track patrol police vehicles, Mobile Data Terminal (MDT)s were installed in 92 police vehicles in the metropolitan areas in October 2018, covering 92 police stations under 8 metropolitan and range police units. There is an intention to have 309 additional police stations around the nation under the MDT system.
For quicker response and increased efficiency, the national helpline is planned for a phase – 2 expansion. The current system only allows phone calls, which the call taker responds to, and sends an SMS to the caller with a CFS ID and dispatches the event to a dispatcher who notifies a nearby police MDT-enabled vehicle or the police station and updates the event status to the control room, while the process is monitored by a supervisor.
The phase 2 of the national emergency helpline 999 is supposed to have multiple modes of reporting, including a mobile app (SOS & Call App) and other social media apps like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter) and Whatsapp. Through a Computer-aided Dispatch (CAD) system, the event is supposed to be dispatched to thana (police station) level via i-Dialer & CAD Thana Dispatch web application. CAD will also be able to dispatch the event to fire or ambulance dispatcher. This enables real-time tracking of the caller through the app and reduces response time.
By integrating the CAD-enabled mobile app with the MDT system, police vehicles and location of the caller can be easily identified and tracked by the remote supervisory dashboard. The dispatcher system is also planned to have a live camera feed.
Bangladesh Police’s Citizen Portal is under development, which can be used to track any report using the CFS ID dispatched by the CAD system. Currently services of the police, such as Police Clearance, General Diary etc. have been digitalized. But self-reporting of crimes and automation of other services can be enabled by a functional citizen portal, which, integrated with the national emergency helpline 999 can bring improvements to the policing system in Bangladesh.
Operational Advantages of National Emergency Helpline 999
According to data obtained from the trial run by the ICT division, it was found that, of the total calls received between October 2016 and June 2017, 64.8 percent asked for police, 31.1 percent for fire and 4.1 percent for ambulance service. Therefore, the emergency response was designed for these 3 services.
However, operating a single helpline comes with its own advantages, as well as challenges. Non-exhaustively three of the main advantages of a single helpline in terms of operational benefits are listed below –
The toll-free hotline is available 24/7. However, support from the police, fire department and ambulance service can be dispatched faster within the metropolitan areas. People in the rural areas might have to wait for longer in order for any help to reach out to them, but that is more of a logistical challenge.
When a caller dials the helpline, an operator connects them to either of the police, ambulance, or fire department. Although Bangladesh Police manages the “National Emergency Service 999,” the Department of Health’s ambulance dispatchers, fire fighters, and civil defence workers collaborate closely with the police around-the-clock to ensure efficient service.
The services are provided under a national emergency help desk operated by Bangladesh Police, which has been set up at a cost of Tk 60.50 crore. It doesn’t require a huge amount of taxpayers’ money to set-up and operate. But it serves a huge population effectively.
A single helpline comes with its challenges in terms of coordination and quick relay of information. Covering the whole country under the quick response system is not easy.
As mentioned above, there have been many prank and hoax calls to the helpline. Given its limited resources and capacity, prank and hoax calls limit the capacity of the helpline for those who are actually in need of assistance. Identification of the caller takes some time. In order to dispatch help, the location has to be identified as well. Currently, the caller has to verbally confirm the location. Modern equipment can locate a caller. Even though locating phone calls might breach people’s privacy, in this case, due to an emergency, automatically locating the caller could significantly reduce response time.
Currently, the helpline has a capacity of attending 100 calls simultaneously. The capacity of 999 should be increased to 500 calls at a time considering the popularity of the service. According to newspaper reports, Bangladesh Police has asked the Ministry of Home Affairs to increase the capacity of the emergency helpline.
In case of emergency, the quickest the response, the less the loss. It is particularly true for fire breakout incidents. According to Mohammad Tabarak Ullah, a police official, the response time of Bangladesh’s emergency helpline is between 15 and 20 minutes compared to seven minutes in the US, the UK, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China.
Only 92 police stations are under MDT system currently, with a plan to upscale. In other police stations, 200 more MDT devices still need to be deployed. At times the MDT-enabled vehicles cannot be located due to the concerned police official’s unfamiliarity with the system, as well as unwillingness to enable location. Police officials should be trained and familiarised with the system in order to increase the effectiveness of real-time service delivery and quick response.
Impact and Success Stories
On 04 June, 2023, a student from University of Dhaka called 999 in the morning and asked for help as he was kidnapped by a miscreant group in Malibagh area. Miscreants were demanding 1 lakh Taka but that student was rescued by Bangladesh police. Miscreants got arrested and his safety was ensured.
During 2021, four students went to visit Himchari area of Cox’s Bazar and lost their path. They were on the verge of getting attacked by the elephants in the mountain. However, they called the National Emergency Service and the Air Force team rescued them ensuring public security.
Every year, on New Year’s occasions lighting firecrackers and sky lanterns seem to be a common phenomenon. Last year alone, Fire incidents occurred at 200 places and they called 999 (national emergency hotline) and got immediate help from Fire fighters. Not only the general fire incidents, due to gas leaks more than 500 cases are reported in Dhaka every month through 999. Titas gas immediately took steps when the National Emergency Service connected them. Eventually the explosion risks got reduced due to these immediate actions taken by both actors.
A few days ago, a thief called 999 from the Khanka Road in the capital’s Kadamtali area. Police ran quickly into the spot and saved the thief’s life from mob lynching and took him to Dhaka Medical College Hospital. Later on, police took legal actions against the thief’s criminal offence, ensuring justice.
This year’s five-day Eid-ul-Azha vacation saw an uptick in calls to the national emergency number 999 regarding violence against women and children. In comparison to the last five days preceding the Eid holiday, there were 26% more calls to 999 about domestic violence.
This year, Eid-ul-Azha was observed from June 27 to July 1. National Emergency Service statistics show that they received 493 phone calls in total, or 99 calls on average per day, alleging violence against women and children. Only during the Eid holidays, 493 phone calls were made reporting various offensive incidents, including
- 176 cases of domestic violence (wives tortured by their husbands),
- 27 cases of murder, 19 incidents of sexual harassment,
- 10 cases of rape,
- 9 incidents of attempted rape,
- 8 cases of dowry-related torture,
- 3 cases of parents torturing children, and
- 241 cases of torture by other family members or neighbours.
Within 2 days of the inauguration of National Emergency Service 999 by Prime Minister’s ICT Affairs Adviser Sajeeb Wazed Joy, several women and children related complaints came.
National Emergency Helpline 999 prevented 3,685 child marriages in 2020 alone. The National Emergency Service reports that between January and October, they stopped 3,685 child marriages, 426 of which occurred in October. In 2019, there were 2,542, a 147% increase over the 1,028 recorded in 2018. Through this hotline, 7,304 child marriages were averted over the course of these three years.
In Chittagong, a brick kiln worker named Nurul Afsar, who is significantly older than Akhi, was supposed to marry the 12-year-old daughter of one Kamal Uddin. When one of the seventh-grader’s neighbours heard about the child marriage, she made an assistance call to the 999 control room and filed a report, according to Imtiaz Bhuiyan, officer-in-charge of Rangunia Police Station. Police stopped the child marriage and took a written statement from Akhi’s father not to get her married before she’s 18.
Similarly, multiple rape cases complaint came to 999. In Gazipur, a 40 year old man who is a father of three children, raped a mentally challenged girl. He came to Gazipur and attended the wedding of that victim’s brother. Later on, when his mother filed a rape case through initially calling 999, law enforcers took immediate actions.
In the previous five years, 10,207 calls of violence against women came into 999 from all throughout the nation. In comparison to the first eight months of 2021, when 3,292 calls were made, it has received 3,552 calls from such sources this year. The fact that 9,313 calls were made concerning domestic abuse by spouses over this time frame raises serious concerns. In 2022’s first eight months, 45% of these calls occurred. 5,770 and 2,669 calls for rape and sexual harassment cases, respectively, were made during the course of the previous five years.
Sadia Saki, a student from Jahanagirnagar University experienced sexual harassment in public transportation. One day, after giving tuition in Bosila while taking a bus for Savar from Gabtoli bus terminal in Swajan Paribahan bus she became the victim. The conductor threatened her of raping and harassing her. She called 999 and reported the case immediately.
Many of such violences against women and children can be prevented if reported on time. The time it takes for someone to reach out to the nearest police station increases the likelihood of occurrence. The national emergency service has been helpful in real-time reporting of such incidents and quickened rescue and security operations.
- Emergency response time is 15-20 minutes in Bangladesh, whereas it is around 7 minutes in the US, the UK, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and China. Officials at the unit said the response time would have come down significantly if their demand for providing the unit with automatic caller identification and location system had been met. But it is yet to be implemented.
- Due to their lack of familiarity with the system, the majority of the officers working in the 92 police stations that house the 999 hotline do not answer appropriately. The reasons for the delay are the allocated policemen’s lack of technological expertise and the issue with the devices’ charging.
- On 05 March, 2023 the official facebook page of the National Emergency Service was hacked. Even though the security system of the call centre has never been questioned, cautiousness in terms of cyber-security of the national emergency helpline should be a priority.
About the Author
A R Tahseen Jahan is a Research Associate at The Confluence and a student of Development Studies at the University of Dhaka. She is also serving as an Editor at Dhaka University Law and Politics Review.