Needed, a Single-Button Distress Caller for Women

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People participate in a protest rally against rape and violence against women on the 1st anniversary of Nirbhaya Gangrape in New Delhi on Monday. --IANS
People participate in a protest rally against rape and violence against women in New Delhi. –IANS

In India we are rolling out 3G and 4G services but we have never felt the need to introduce a single number for emergency response

MONISH GULATI

A physiotherapy student was raped and tortured by five men and a juvenile in a moving bus in New Delhi Dec 16, 2012. Later the young woman and a male friend who was accompanying her were thrown off the bus by the rapists. The woman succumbed to her injuries December 29 in a Singapore hospital.

In a TV interview her male friend said that three Police Control Room (PCR) vans had arrived at the scene after about 45 minutes and spent time in debating the police station under whose jurisdiction the case would fall. He also said that nobody, including the police, gave them clothes to cover themselves or called an ambulance. “They were just watching us,” and after repeated pleas, somebody gave him a part of a bed sheet to cover the girl.

Given the visibly seriously injured condition of the 23-year-old woman, the policemen were hesitant to lift her into the PCR, losing crucial time. The experience of the victims at the hospital was equally harrowing.

It is a possibility that during such a traumatic situation an individual may not be in a state to estimate the elapsed time correctly and may tend to exaggerate the response of the first responders involved. However, if the description of events that night were even half accurate – it should shame every citizen of this country.

Actions of the government to remedy the situation were positive, albeit goaded by an enraged citizenry. The unfortunate incident was the outcome of a complex interplay of contributing factors, and accordingly the corrective measures were diverse and sought to address organizational, legal, societal and a host of other issues that had led to the situation. This article looks at some of the aspects of public safety.

Sequence of Response

According to the police, the information regarding the incident Dec 16 was received by the PCR operator (in the main control room) at 10.21 p.m. through a phone call on emergency number 100.

Two PCR vans, Eagle-47 from south district and Zebra-54 from southwest district, were dispatched, and they reached the spot after six and eight minutes respectively. Ten minutes later, the victims were taken in PCR Zebra-54 to Safdarjung Hospital. Zebra-54 took 16 minutes to reach Safdarjung Hospital and the victims were handed over to the hospital staff thereafter.

According to the police, there were no jurisdiction issues during their response.

The incident was subsequently probed by a joint secretary from the union home ministry and also by Justice Usha Mehra, a retired judge of the Delhi High Court. The home ministry probe looked into the role of Safdarjung hospital staff also.

The then union home secretary R.K. Singh said that his ministry had come to the conclusion after technical analysis that response of the PCR vans could have been faster. However, it was just one of the issues.

If the police control room received a reasonable description of the victims why was no ambulance sent to the spot? In her recommendations after the probe, Justice Mehra said a system should be put in place for a “push button in mobile phones through which family or police could be reached immediately when anyone is in distress”. One of the inquiries suggested an improvement in the design of the response provided by the emergency number – 100.

Corrective Improvements

When attacked by her rapists, Nirbhaya had tried to call for help from her mobile phone. In a recent gang rape incident in Mumbai the attackers had made the victim speak to her mother to reassure her that nothing was amiss. A single button distress caller on the mobile phone can be of great assistance in such situations.

Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and Electronics Corporation of India (ECIL) this month launched Nirbhaya, a tele distress alarm device. The alarm device which costs Rs.3,000 is paired with users’ cell phones through Bluetooth and could be functional on any mobile phone. The government is all set to launch a pilot project in Jaipur. Quite a few applications of similar nature are already available commercially.

However, sending a distress/emergency call is just one part of the solution. The key is how quickly and efficiently it is responded to and by whom. In India to date we do not have a single number emergency response system. These functions, in the case of major cities, are carried out by the police control room – which is not an efficient way of doing things. Most countries use a specialized call centre or Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) for the purpose.

In this system, the responsibility of calling and directing the correct agency for help shifts from the caller to the PSAP. This brings efficiency and enhanced response, avoiding errors in the handling of the emergency. In the Nirbhaya case, based on the initial call, a PSAP would have directed an ambulance to the spot and forewarned the hospital of the nature of emergency and ETA of the ambulance.

In India we are rolling out 3G and 4G services but we have never felt the need to introduce a single number for emergency response.

It is likely that protests in the public domain and the Nirbhaya case prompted the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) in March 2013 to come out with a consultation paper on universal single number Integrated Emergency Communication Response System (IECRS). A PSAP is integral to the IECRS.

The Ministry of Road Transport and Highways in its response to the incident envisaged GPS-based tracking of all public transport in cities with million-plus population.

However, in view of the Nirbhaya case it would have been more appropriate to have CCTV/cams fitted in PCR vans (to be switched on when a PCR is assigned a task) and also at all trauma centers covering actions from the ambulance reception areas to the first aid room and outside the operation theater. This will not only ensure appropriate action by all concerned but also provide invaluable evidence for medico-legal cases.

Conclusion

Public safety and emergency response are as good as the people who deliver these services. First responder as well as police reforms are a public safety imperative. The ultimate test of these reforms would be when people, particularly women, start using the police emergency number as one of their ICE numbers.

Monish Gulati is a research fellow with the Society for Policy Studies

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