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Triple-0 emergency service to accept text messages

People with hearing or speech disabilities will soon be able to contact triple-0 emergency services through SMS messaging on mobile phones, the government has announced.

The Telecommunications Universal Service Management Agency signed contracts with Australian Communication Exchange and WestWood Spice to deliver the enhanced national relay service (NRS), Communications minister Stephen Conroy said today.

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In addition to the ability to send SMS to emergency services, the deaf and hard of hearing will be able to make and receive phone calls through a new Internet-based relay service, access a video relay service, and use a Web-based service for captioned telephony. All relay services can be accessed through a new app for smartphones and other Internet-enabled devices.

The new services will be "progressively introduced as soon as possible in the second half of 2013," Conroy said. "I have directed my department to immediately progress work on these changes and to actively engage with the community in their development."

"These changes to the NRS will enhance the lives of all Australians who have a hearing or speech impairment, as well as their friends and families," Conroy said. "It is the biggest improvement to the NRS since it was established in 1995."

Conroy said regulatory changes will be required to act on some of the proposals, but he expects them to be made by 1 July when the new relay service contract begins.

Existing telecom relay services such as teletype will continue under the new contract, Conroy's office said.

The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) said the changes to the relay service will save lives.

"Few can imagine how terrifying it would be in an emergency situation to not know if the person answering your triple-0 call can understand you, or whether help is on the way," said ACCAN chief executive Teresa Corbin.

"These new telecommunications services are going to be life-changing for people who are deaf, speech or hearing impaired," she added.

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