Few of European Voice's readers will, we suspect, know that 11 February is the European 112 Day. Far more importantly and worryingly, few Europeans know what 112 is.
That should concern all of us, and spur more action from the European Commission.
According to Eurobarometer, only 26% of Europeans know that 112 is a number they can dial to contact emergency services (ambulances, fire-fighters and police) in any EU country. Awareness has barely grown in recent years.
In some countries, the rates are substantially higher. In Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, and Sweden, 112 is the sole emergency number – and so awareness is almost universal. Other countries – such as Bulgaria, Romania, Portugal and Poland – have run promotional campaigns that have ensured that a majority of the population is now aware 112 is the number to dial all over Europe.
So promotion works. The problem is that some member states are reluctant to raise awareness. Their fear seems to be that citizens will start dialling 112 rather than the national numbers for the individual emergency services.
This is unacceptable. By not promoting the 112 number, governments are putting their own citizens at risk: when they go abroad, they do not automatically know that there is a single number that they can call. This lack of promotion is often coupled with neglect of their domestic 112 service, so its quality suffers.
Since member states are not promoting and improving the quality of the 112 service, the European Commission should step in and oblige measures to be taken. The Commission has in the past taken action to help citizens in emergencies. Many member states were reluctant to sign up to the idea of eCall, which establishes a direct connection from vehicles to 112 with voice and location data. But, on this subject, the Commission did not put forward subsidiarity as the solution. It forced action. eCall will become a reality in 2015.
Why could the same political approach not be taken with the 112 service?
A good policy on the 112 service would also include a crucial element introduced in the eCall legislation: the provision of accurate caller location information. Data gathered by the EU's Co-ordination Group on Access to Location Information by Emergency Services indicates that each year at least 20 million rescue interventions are delayed because of a lack of caller location information. In other parts of the world, mobile-phone operators (for example) are obliged to provide location information to emergency services.
The costs of such delays and their effect run into hundreds of millions of euros annually. Recent figures suggest that the deployment of accurate location would require only a one-off investment of approximately half a euro per mobile-phone network subscriber.
The EU was forceful in its eCall policy. It should be as forceful with the 112 service, a service that would produce even greater societal benefits. This year happens to be the European Year of Citizens. This is a good moment for the Commission – finally and fully – to develop a service that was created in 1991 to protect citizens as they moved around the single market.
Isabelle Durant, a Belgian Green, is a vice president of the European Parliament. Bernadette Vergnaud is a French socialist and deputy chairwoman of the European Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee.