Q: Does "In Case of Emergency" (ICE) contact info need to be default feature on Smartphones, even if you don't know the device password?

July 19, 2008

IMG_0001According to a study done by Vodaphone, less than 1 out of 4 people carry information on who to contact in case of emergency or serious accident. A movement over the past four years encouraging users to create an emergency contact entry in your phone under "ICE" has also been working its way around the world. But what happens when that information is locked in a password-protected phone or mobile device?

Is it time for mobile OS makers to offer an ICE contact feature that’s accessible, even if you don’t have the device’s password? 

ICE Background
The ICE concept started in 2005 by British paramedic Bob Brotchie:

"I was reflecting on some difficult calls I’ve attended, where people were unable to speak to me through injury or illness and we were unable to find out who they were. I discovered that many people, obviously, carry mobile phones and we were using them to discover who they were. It occurred to me that if we had a uniform approach to searching inside a mobile phone for an emergency contact then that would make it easier for everyone." (BBC Radio 4 Today)

Sadly, it was only after the London Bombings that the concept really took off worldwide. ICE is a great idea and the ITU Standards Body has also gotten behind the concept, outlining a language-independent format for storing next of kin information and applications are available for both iPhone and Windows Mobile for ICE details. The problem is that it doesn’t go far enough with today’s phones.

"Sir, please wake up.  What is the password on your phone?!"
Not likely to be the first thing you want to hear after an accident.  Concerns surrounding privacy, theft, and overall security of personal information have created a social and organizational culture that places a premium on secure access to the device.  As cell phones increasingly become mobile information worker devices, corporate policies are "pushed" down to the phones, requiring a passcode to gain access to corporate email servers in order to protect the organization in case of device theft.  This is a great feature, as is "remote wipe" with Exchange servers where the remote device can be erased in case of theft, but the phones features as an emergency device haven’t kept up with the times.  E911 requires that mobile phones be able to make emergency calls in the US.  But as far as I know, no requirements exist for making emergency contact, doctor, or allergy information accessible.

Is it time for ICE to become a Standard on Mobile phones?
The concept is simple – have a feature in the mobile OS that allows you to select an ICE contact and a standard way for emergency personnel to 

So the questions I’m putting out there are:

  • Does this feature actually exist on any smartphone platform?  and
  • Should it be standardized and mandated by the Government, similar to 911 calling on locked phones?

Pushing the Envelope – Phone of the Future
It’s a slow Saturday so I’m going to riff here a bit. In the future, one could imagine that phones will start to implement features that work together to protect their owner in case of injury. In recent months, there have been stories that social messaging tools such as Twitter and Facebook broke news of the devastating earthquake in China, beating out traditional outlets.  Imagine if your phone could similarly report an incapacitating injury? For example, accelerometers like those in car airbag systems that can detect the massive G-forces associated with catastrophic car crashes could combine with location based services to notify emergency personnel.  Laptop hard drives have for years had accelerometers to lock the HDD heads in case of an accidental drop.  Of course, there would have to be sufficient safeguards against the occasional dropped phone (e.g. Phone telling the owner "I’m okay, are you?").   If the user doesn’t respond in a given time, emergency personnel are notified with last known coordinates taken from the GPS. 

In major disaster events such as earthquakes or building collapses, emergency reports from multiple phones could combine to notify emergency personnel of major life-threatening events in near-realtime, pinpointing the location and potential severity. In additional to dialing 911, a "Panic Button" on the phone could notify 911 of your location and secondary information if you can provide about the type of emergency.  And 911 would have the ability to enable an audible "chirp" beacon on your phone, similar to what Firemen and emergency personnel wear today in case of building collapse or low visibility.

These are just a few ideas.  Just imagine what we can (and will do) as location based services move from being trivial people movers and notifiers to people savers.  Isn’t it time we start in that direction with benefits?  Today you can get a discount on auto premiums if you have a car alarm.  How about a discount for an E911++ enabled phone on my life insurance? 🙂

3 responses to Q: Does "In Case of Emergency" (ICE) contact info need to be default feature on Smartphones, even if you don't know the device password?

  1. 

    When there is an emergency I don’t want anyone touching my phone, I would rather have them be calling 911. There isn’t anyone in my contacts qualified to handle an emergency.

  2. 

    Dan – I agree with you but the ICE concept was created to allow Emergency Medical Technicians and hospital responders to contact your family in the event you’re unable, as well as get important information on known medical conditions and/or allergies.

  3. 

    I agree with you completely in that the software in the phones (especially Smartphones) need to be flexible enough that ICE contact info can be accessed without the phone password. I don’t know when the phonemakers will get to it though, since it doesn’t seem that big of a deal to them at this moment…..