Call for action

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 August, 1997, 12:00am

No one will ever know if any lives were lost as a result of the fault affecting emergency calls on 1,700 payphones. But the possibility is deeply worrying when it concerns a service whose reliability the public has every right to take for granted.

The widow of the typhoon victim, Tom Larmour, certainly believes that the vital minutes which were lost when she was repeatedly disconnected after dialling 999 on one of the affected phones might have made a difference in saving her husband's life.

Had it not been for that tragedy, this fault would presumably have remained undetected, so putting further lives at risk. As it is, Hongkong Telecom has acted with commendable speed to correct the problem. A permanent solution should be in place within the next three days.

But that does not explain why the fault was allowed to remain undetected for so long, possibly for as long as the five years since the telephones were first installed. It also can only raise fears that there may be other problems with the emergency call system which have yet to be discovered.

Clearly there is something wrong with Hongkong Telecom's quality control procedures. The tests which were conducted after this newspaper revealed Mrs Larmour's experience should have been carried out long ago.

Worse still, the fact that the problem only affects 999 services will inevitably raise suspicions that lower priority is given to checking for faults that interrupt free calls than to monitoring the quality of paid-for services. That is almost certainly unfair. Nonetheless, the telephone company has some explaining to do. Every second counts in an emergency; everything has to be planned with that in mind.

Hongkong Telecom should use this opportunity to conduct a thorough review of how it connects 999 calls, and see whether any other improvements can be made. In that way, it can restore public trust in its ability to provide an efficient emergency service.