To its owner, the cell phone is an indispensable lifeline at times of crisis, reuniting loved ones separated by unforeseen events at the touch of a button. But for members of the emergency services making life-and-death decisions, the cell poses a conundrum: Which of the numbers stored in its electronic address book should they call to reach a casualty's next of kin?
Now a simple initiative, conceived by a paramedic in Britain, has gained momentum on both sides of the Atlantic to try to solve this problem. Cell users are being urged to put the acronym ICE -- "in case of emergency" -- before the names of the people they want to designate as next of kin in their cell address book, creating entries such as "ICE -- Dad" or "ICE -- Alison."
At least two police forces in the United States are considering the idea, according to the initiative's British-based promoters, who say there has been a flurry of interest since the recent bombings in London.
Paramedics, police and firefighters often waste valuable time trying to figure out which name in a cell phone to call when disaster strikes, according to current and retired members of the emergency services, who said they must look through wallets for clues, or scroll through cell address books and guess. Many people identify their spouse by name in their cell, making them indistinguishable from other entries.
"Sometimes dialing the number for 'Mum' or 'Dad' might not be appropriate, particularly if they are elderly, suffer from ill health or Alzheimer's," said Matthew Ware, a spokesman for the East Anglian Ambulance service, which is promoting the ICE initiative. "This would give paramedics a way of getting hold of the appropriate person in a few seconds."
The idea was conceived by Bob Brotchie, a clinical team leader for the ambulance service, after years of trying to reach relatives of people he was treating. He began the ICE initiative in April, but it gained momentum only after the bombings in London, when information about the plan spread by e-mail. Ware said the East Anglian Ambulance service received 500 inquiries in six days, from South Africa, Canada, Israel, Germany, and several organizations in the United States, including a security company from Utah working on the London bombings, police departments in Florida and Texas, and a company in Ohio.
Lt. Robert Stimpson, acting police chief of Madison, Conn., was one of those who contacted Ware. "I think it's a great idea. . . . It's so simple I can't believe that other people haven't thought of it before. Not only does it help emergency workers identify a responsible party when they come upon an unconscious person, it also helps identify the owners of lost cell phones," he said in a telephone interview.
Several next-of-kin contact systems were set up after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, such as the nonprofit National Next of Kin Registry established in January 2004 that shares information provided to state agencies in the event of an emergency. The registry was set up by Mark Cerney, a disabled Marine who noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2003, 900,000 emergency room patients could not provide contact information because they were incapacitated.
Ware said that although there are such databases, some charge as much as $200 a year to register. The ICE initiative is available free to the 192 million cell users in the United States.
Kathleen Montgomery, deputy press secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, said she did not have any comment on the matter because it was not the department's idea. Instead, she recommended that citizens look at the department's emergency preparedness site, Ready.Gov. The site recommends that next-of-kin details and other emergency information be kept on a "family contingency plan" sheet that can be downloaded from the site.
The site offers wallet-size cards that can be distributed to family members with space for details about next of kin and additional information such as neighborhood meeting places, out-of-town contacts and other important telephone numbers.
Erin McGee, spokeswoman for the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which represents the wireless industry, said her members welcome the ICE initiative. "I think it has the potential to catch on. From what I've read, it seems to be already spreading beyond Britain."
Clark L. Staten, a senior analyst for the Emergency Response and Research Institute, a Chicago-based consultancy and think tank for the emergency services and military, said he thinks it sounds like a good idea, but could have a couple of pitfalls.
"There may be some privacy concerns: firstly, that the next of kin or the address or phone number could be accessed by someone other than a member of the emergency service," he said. "Secondarily, the information could become out of date, and the designated next-of-kin number is disconnected or you change your next of kin altogether. The worst -- you don't want them to call the ex."