The service, available only to residents of the West Midlands region, went live in mid-July. People who wish to use the new service must apply in writing and have their details placed on a database, stored at the police department's Communications Center.

A number of police forces throughout the country have already shown interest in the new service and it is likely to be expanded to other areas in the future. The initiative follows an idea submitted by Tim Humpherson, a department worker who is deaf.

"This idea is innovative to West Midlands Police," Humpherson said. "As a deaf person, I recognize the missing link, which is crucial for deaf communities to be able to contact the emergency services. Many deaf people already send and receive text messages extensively on their mobile phones. I hope this idea will be extended to all other police forces across the country as it will be of great benefit to deaf and speech impaired people." - West Midlands Police Department

E-Mail Dilemma

HELENA, Mont. - A recent investigation in Montana highlights a quandary facing many state and local governments: How to classify and retain e-mails flowing into and out of government offices.

Two media organizations, The Associated Press and Lee Newspapers of Montana, had requested approximately 3,500 e-mails from Gov. Judy Martz's office relating to an investigation being conducted by the state's Department of Justice concerning allegedly improper use of state telephones for political fund-raising.

As Montana officials worked to cooperate with the media organizations, they soon ran into complications.

"The news media requested e-mail accounts as they existed in the past," said Barbara Ranf, Gov. Martz's chief of staff. "We had to go to a disaster-recovery system to recreate an e-mail box - with all the sent and deleted items, the inbox and all the sub-folders - as it existed a month previously. That was the first really difficult part."

Though a new information system could help, Ranf said it's not simply a matter of throwing money at the problem.

"It came down to the physical part of having to look at each e-mail and say, 'Is there a privacy or other right here that we have a responsibility to protect,' that's what we're struggling with. I don't know how you do that without a human element in there to make that judgment call."

Part of the problem facing governments is determining when a particular e-mail is an official document and, then, saving that document in the right way and in the right place.

"Everything that comes in your e-mail box, we don't believe is a public document," Ranf said. "The news media's position was that [those e-mails] were. That's something that we'll have to work through."

Montana and other states need to examine their electronic document file-management systems, said Montana CIO Brian Wolf, who manages the state's central e-mail system.

Montana stores e-mail messages for 30 days. Under current state policy, messages considered official state documents are printed out and put into files - which replace any electronic availability of the documents, Wolf said.

"At this point in time, the state doesn't have a system that replaces that hard-file drawer that is a true electronic file-management system," Wolf said. "Look at the number of electronic documents you get today, versus what you got five years ago. What that tells us is that we have to start preparing ourselves to better catalog these documents."

Calculating Savings

TAMPA, Fla. - Why use an electronic service instead of driving to city hall? A savings calculator on the city of Tampa's Web site attempts to answer that question.