Emergency Services for All

29 Oct 2015

   The 112 operators are answering emergency calls from people with hearing and speech impairments March 2015. Photo: Vladimer Valisvhili/UNDP

Earlier this year, Koka Mumladze, who is deaf from early childhood, watched another driver crash into his parked car on the street. Unable to contact the police using a traditional voice call, and unsure of what to do, he made a video call to a friend and asked for help:

“I told him I needed a sign language interpreter on the scene. But he said I didn’t need one – I could use a new service to make an emergency call myself.”

Today, sign language interpreters are on hand at the emergency hotline112 to accept video calls and SMS messages from those who cannot hear and speak. Koka’s first experience with the hotline proved successful: a police officer was dispatched and the perpetrator caught before he could get away.

“It felt so empowering to be able to call the police myself,” Koka told me. “Today, I feel safe traveling by myself for work, even in rural areas. I can always call 112 and get help.”

Koka’s story is one of many I have heard since attending the launch of the new 112 emergency services in March. At the event, which was one of my first experiences as a UNDP intern, I felt the excitement of history being made: Georgia is one of four countries in Europe to offer both SMS and video call emergency services.

The new services were developed as part of a joint initiative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Georgia and the Swedish Government. Over the course of seven months, staff members at 112 took part in a study trip to Ireland, attended technical training sessions with local and international experts, and collaborated with deaf and hard of hearing community members to design and test the new services. This holistic approach has ensured that the services are modern, innovative, and appropriate to the needs of the community. 

More recently, I had the chance to visit the 112 call center, a large circular building overlooking the city of Tbilisi. There, a few dozen call operators work each day to direct incoming emergency calls from all over Georgia. The call center itself is constantly abuzz with the sounds of operators taking calls and typing incident reports. Several large screens broadcast live video streams from the streets of Tbilisi.

Nikoloz Gulordava joined the 112 team in March as an interpreter. He grew up with a hearing and speech impaired family member and learned sign language from an early age:

“This new service brings peace to us as family members. I know that even when I’m not at home, my loved ones can contact 112 in case of an emergency. And I know that by working here we are truly helping those who are in need.”

Over the past seven months, 270 people have registered to use the new service, and 112 has received 147 video calls and 94 SMS messages.

One thing I found interesting is that out of all these calls and messages, deaf callers were not always the ones in need of assistance. Once an elderly woman locked herself out of her house, and she went directly to her hearing-impaired neighbor who was able to call for help:“We used to be the ones who asked for help. Today we can also lend a helping hand,” says Flora Bejashvili, who has also used the new services.

Almost everyone I met with as part of this initiative emphasized the feelings of inclusivity and empowerment brought on by the new services. For many years, this community has had to rely on neighbors and family members in cases of fire, burglary or other emergencies, but now this is changing. As one of my respondents, Natia Jakhoshvili, told me: “I don’t feel excluded from society anymore.”

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