VoIP and 911: placing a call

Ah, yes. 911 has been a contentious subject of many VoIP blog posts. In February, FCC published a revised consumer document, which explains in plain language the differences between traditional 911 or Enhanced 911 services and those provided over VoIP.  Among many challenges surrounding VoIP technology and 911 emergency dialing are: differences in power supply to the communication lines and handsets, availability of automatic routing to appropriate Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) and challenges of tracing calls back to their source physical location.  Most of these issues can be successfully mitigated by technology and end user training in what should be the best practice in emergency dialing. In this post I would like to address what I believe to be the key and most important difference between traditional phone and VoIP emergency dialing: end user expectation.

The current U.S. system of emergency management has evolved over a long time and when a person calls 911 from a standard telephone, they are immediately transferred to a PSAP Dispatcher. The dispatcher has the capabilities of seeing your phone number and location when you call. Even a mobile phone today can provide you with the approximate location based on triangulation of the wireless signal or coordinates supplied by its built-in GPS receiver. With traditional phone service, the use of 911 is a call, and then the Public Safety Answering Point tracing their location.

With VoIP technology, this does not always work. There is no easy way to accurately “trace” that call back to physical location because the VoIP “line” is virtual. This is why it is so important for the operators of the Hosted PBX services to properly enter 911 profiles every time they add, move or change an extension. At DLS, for example, we require that customers establish 911 profiles in order to make outbound calls. What we do not know, however, is how updated or accurate those profiles are.

The real problem is that with the introduction of VoIP – the old 911 system designed for traditional phone lines (which could always be traced to a physical service address) became more difficult to accurately maintain. Geographic portability of VoIP puts the burden of keeping track of the source location on the operator, not the service provider. The customer must take the responsibility to update the location information of the telephone as the VoIP providers will not be aware of the move. Can you imagine yourself having to update your 911 profile each time you sit down to work in your favorite Starbucks “virtual office”?

To sum up: advancements in modern communications technology have created the need for a more advanced system to access emergency care. While the existing 911 system has been a success story for over 30 years, it has been stretched to its limit as technology advances. As a result, through cumbersome adaptations, E911 is being asked to perform functions it was not designed to handle. In short, the nation’s 911 systems are in need of a significant overhaul. In this changing world, VoIP – Voice Over Internet Telephony – is rapidly gaining ground and is no longer considered a fad, but a strong and viable alternative to traditional phone service.

As to the end users – here is our advice: when calling 911, DO NOT EXPECT DISPATCHER TO KNOW WHERE YOU ARE. If you have an emergency, the first thing that you will need to do is speak clearly, and give the operator your location, address, and name.