Is Emergency Calling VoIP and Hosted PBX’s Achilles’ Heel?

Everyone’s minds have been locked firmly on the potential for disaster and the necessity of contingency plans in the face of some sort of operationally-debilitating experience. In the wake of recent environmental catastrophes the usefulness of remotely hosted communications systems has become blindingly apparent. VoIP and hosted PBX both make it much, much easier for an organization to regain its operational footing almost immediately after a disaster, even if that disaster lays waste to their offices and/or damage their in-house communications equipment. By remotely locating the guts of an organization’s communication systems VoIP and hosted PBX essentially make an organization’s communication systems as disaster-proof as possible.

However, some experts have raised a really good question when it comes to remote hosting of communications technology, and that’s the fact remote hosting can cause some real problems for emergency services.

Determining Location in a Remote World

Here’s the crux of the problem- it’s really difficult to locate the source of a phone call if that phone call is made from a remotely placed communications hub, while it’s easy to locate the source of a call when that call is made from a PSTN or mobile line. Emergency service providers are accustomed to using traditional telephony technologies to locate the source of their calls in order to accurately dispatch recovery teams or general assistance to the individual or organization making the call, and remotely hosted communications services throw a big wrench in these procedures.

This argument against remotely hosted communications technologies holds some weight. IP addresses are portable and are not tied to specific physical locations.

Location-related problems with remotely hosted communications technologies can be mitigated on mobile devices as these devices often have location services automatically enabled and as such as relatively easy to track. But emergency calls made from hosted PBX and/or VoIP fixed phones don’t tend to have location services enabled in their architecture. There is no easy way to trace a call made using a soft phone over cellular network, for example.

Matters are made potential more confusing by the fact IP providers don’t necessarily know the physical address that a specific phone call made using their services comes from. A service provider may know what IP address is making a call, but they might not know where that call’s origin point is located. To put it as simply as possible- IP addresses and physical address are NOT related to each other, so finding the IP address of a hosted PBX or VoIP phone call probably isn’t going to reveal a whole lot of useful information on that call’s location.

But Can’t Emergency Providers Just Track User Data?

Yes and no.

A VoIP phone is going to connect to their service provider through a username and password. A service provider can know that a call was made from a particular user within their database who is assigned to the phone number in question, but that’s about it. Even with that information a service provider or emergency worker still isn’t going to be able to track down the call’s location. Instead the service provider can only go to that user’s data and find the physical location associated with that user (a physical address is required for all VoIP users according to Federal regulation).

So- does this mean VoIP and hosted PBX aren’t any help whatsoever if you need to make a call to an emergency service? Not at all, it just means that PBX administrators must keep location data current for each physical address in your nomadic 911 service profile for stationary handsets. VoIP strength is in its mobility and geographic independence. As with any mobile technology, when calling 911 service, users must remember to provide operator with their actual location.  VoIP and hosted PBX may have created a few location identification problems for emergency calling  but overall these potential issues are pretty simple to avoid and do not negate the obvious benefits offered by remotely located communications technology in the case of a disaster.