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Relay UK

Relay UK - providing a vital
lifeline for the deaf community

Jeremy Smitham, Senior Manager Voice services at BT

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been incredibly proud of my team of 999 call centre agents for putting the needs of the UK public first to fulfil their critical role. As well as acting as the first responders in answering over 30 million 999 calls a year, our specially trained experts are on hand to help people with hearing and speech difficulties to communicate over the phone. This service, called Relay UK, can be a vital lifeline for the deaf and hard of hearing community. There are currently 12 million people in the UK who experience hearing loss and, without this service, using the traditional telephone to contact friends, family and access critical public services would pose a huge barrier.


In an emergency, Relay UK enables a user to alert the police, ambulance, fire, or coastguard services by either connecting via a Relay agent based in one of BT’s centres, or by texting a message to 999 using BT’s emergency SMS service. As well as providing a vital service for emergency calls, Relay UK is used widely by the deaf community to make phone calls to access other key services, such as to make a doctor’s appointment or access healthcare advice, to call a bank, or simply to call friends and family. During the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, our Relay assistants were dealing with unprecedented levels of demand, answering 2,500 calls on the busiest days.


Connecting for good

This peak in demand for the Relay UK service highlights its importance in helping the deaf community to stay connected. At BT, we’ve led the development of Relay UK on behalf of stakeholders across the deaf and hard of hearing community, such as Action on Hearing Loss, UK Council on Deafness, National Deaf Children’s Society and Hearing Link, as well as for customers of all other UK phone providers. BT’s technology enables a user to easily make a call based on their own accessibility needs, providing vital independence for many users. After downloading the Relay UK app, the user can connect to a call after selecting one of three options: Type & Read, Speak & Read, or Type & Hear. BT’s research shows that phone calls remain an essential form of communication for 80 per cent of the deaf community, with 46 per cent of them calling businesses at least once a week.


Celebrating our colleagues

I’m in awe of my team of key workers at BT who work tirelessly to handle both 999 and Relay UK calls across our BT call centres. 

Our key workers have continued to work throughout the pandemic to keep the public connected - providing critical support for the NHS, the emergency services and vulnerable customers. I am particularly proud of my colleague Karen Smith, Emergency Authority and Government relationship manager at BT, for being awarded an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours. Karen’s MBE recognises her work in collaborating tirelessly with over 130 emergency control rooms to ensure that all 999 calls are answered and dealt with as efficiently as possible, going the extra mile to support frontline 999 call centre staff and managers throughout the crisis. Karen stands alongside a long list of BT heroes, and I’d like to thank each and every one of my colleagues for going above and beyond during this challenging time.


Today marks 112 Day, and at BT we’re joining the European Emergency Number Association (EENA) to celebrate the incredible work of the emergency services across Europe. In the UK, both 999 and 112 are supported emergency service numbers. Calls are first handled by BT’s call centres before being passed to the relevant emergency service. The EENA are thanking BT today for our work in collaborating on Advanced Mobile Location (AML) technology across Europe. The technology pinpoints the location of an emergency caller – helping emergency services globally to reach incidents more quickly and save lives.


At BT, we’re proud to be celebrating our key worker heroes today. We’ll continue to use our life-saving technology to help support the emergency services and make communications more accessible for vulnerable customers and those with disabilities, so that they can stay connected when they need it most.

11 February 2021