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All we need is one emergency number

The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) harmonised and mandated for COVID-19 national emergency services number ‘111’ on 15 April 2020. This despite South Africa having at least four exclusive national emergency numbers, namely 10111, 10177, 112 and 107 and according to my calculation, at least 600 different ten-digit local emergency numbers, which link individuals and households with a wide spectrum of local and national emergency services. According to the promulgation, the number ‘111’ will cease to be harmonised and mandated within three (3) months after the termination of the National State of Disaster. Although I do not wish to digress from the immense work that has been put in by the different departments during this time, the declared disaster should not be used to add to the current state of inefficiency.

The current variety of national emergency numbers means that persons travelling from Cape Town to Johannesburg or from Polokwane to Ekurhuleni, need to ensure they check and familiarise themselves with local emergency numbers before travelling to their respective destinations, especially during this phased lockdown period. This situation is further exacerbated as some numbers are only freely available when using a landline, which presupposes that residents or travellers within the country either have access to a landline or have sufficient airtime on their mobile cellular phones in an emergency. 

When I began my research into the feasibility of a single emergency in number in South Africa, I collected anecdotes from concerned citizens around the country which still holds true today. A story that particularly broke my heart was published on the front page of the Beeld in 2018. A young woman could not reach emergency medical assistance after her father had been fatally shot during a housebreaking incident. She called 10111 from a cell phone with no airtime and the call could not be connected. Distressed, she ran frantically to the nearest filling station to get help, but none of the petrol attendants had airtime on their cell phones either. A statement later released by the SAPS North West Spokesperson Lieutenant-Colonel Adele Myburgh casually focused on the fact that the woman should have called 112 and not 10111 from her cell phone. How was she to know I asked myself when there are so many numbers out there!

Another interview I had was with Ms Deborah Groenewald* fifty-year-old women residing north of Johannesburg. According to Groenewald “I called 911 after a hit-and-run in Johannesburg. At the time I believed this was the only way I could get help because they thought I was a white American tourist” The same sentiments were shared when Mr Bongani Shezi* a thirty-two-year-old male who resides in Soshanguve “my wife was severely ill, I called 10177 because I always see it on the ambulances, I called it so many times and it just went answered. Out of desperation, I hitch-hiked to the hospital!”.

Picture of emergency numbers found at one of the hotels (source: own)

Looking at the picture above, if you were in an emergency during lockdown which number would you call? There are several numbers not listed above, which includes other municipal emergency numbers, local police station numbers, police sector vehicle contact numbers, local or private ambulance services, local fire brigade numbers, crime tip-off lines and other emergency numbers owned or operated by the private sector, state-owned entities, non-governmental organisations and civil society organisations. This list excludes the mobile applications that have since been established by private players. That is why we need just one emergency number!

Through the recent harmonisation of the ‘111’ COVID-19 national emergency services number, the government is promoting the segmentation of emergency numbers which it purports to increase the efficiency in the response. My research showed a different reality. Views from public sector experts, as well as NGO’s, civil society and some private sector experts, propose that a single emergency number should be used to enhance the ability to provide much-needed emergency services.  At the heart of this request for a single emergency number is the need for coordination between industry players in the public sector, private sector, NGO’s and civil society organisations. “Not to mention shared data” one expert exclaimed! The mushrooming emergency numbers in South Africa is increasing the widespread inefficiency and reduced innovation in the sector.

Given the scarcity of resources in South Africa, I would say “all we need is one emergency number!”

Lerato Mpobane is the Group Chief Executive of Bokang Africa Group, a boutique group of firms, each anchored in magnifying the facets of fraud, corruption and other serious or violent crimes. A well-respected security researcher, she specialises in developing policies and systems to combat cybercrime, she also helps businesses understand their security posture by identifying weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Lerato also serves as the Gauteng Regional Treasurer for The Association of Private Security Owners of South Africa (TAPSOSA).

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