Internet Telephones and 911: Emerging Technology – And Emerging Problems

Throughout history, people have reported fires in a number of ways. Watchmen’s rattles, church bells and locomotive rims gave way to Gamewell boxes and, eventually, the telephone. For many communities, the corner fire alarm box has long been a thing...


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As wireless telephones and pagers became popular, this began to change. New area codes had to be created to keep up with the demand for additional phone numbers. Some area codes were created as “overlays” that overlapped one or more existing codes. In other places, area codes were divided. This solved the number crunch, but forever changed the concept of how area codes are assigned.

Another change in concept came with the introduction of number portability. Consumers were now free to keep their existing telephone numbers even if they changed carriers. Exchanges were no longer hard coded. VOIP will take this change ever further, and area codes will cease to be meaningful. There will come a day when each of us is assigned a contact number, much like a Social Security number, that will follow us for life. Wherever we are in the world, we will be able to be reached. I have specifically not called this a telephone number, because the devices used to communicate by future generations may have little resemblance to the device invented by Alexander Graham Bell.

Cell phones operate more like radios than telephones, so some of the biggest challenges for emergency dispatchers have involved determining the caller’s location and routing the call to the proper Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Wireless providers now use one of two methods to provide location data. Network-based solutions use a principle akin to triangulation, where information gathered by the network is used to approximate the origin of the signal. Handset-based solutions use global positioning system (GPS) chips inside the telephones themselves to provide this information.

While the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has adopted accuracy standards, it is fair to say that these standards, although a vast improvement over having no standards at all, are a far cry from what could be called pinpoint accuracy. The solution to selectively routing calls to the correct agency has been addressed through the use of assigning signals received by a cell tower to a primary PSAP. For towers well within the PSAP’s geographic boundaries, this is relatively simple. However, where jurisdictions are small, and where towers are located near the boundary line, it becomes more complex. Many cellular towers have multiple “faces,” each receiving calls from a different direction. Calls are typically routed to the PSAP having jurisdiction over the largest portion of the signal pattern. Obviously, this is less than perfect. When combined with the fact that omni-directional sites that cannot correlate signal direction still exist, it adds up to many misdirected calls.

While the wireless issue is in its second decade of wrangling, along comes VOIP. Similar to the cell phone, it is capable of making phone calls. However, since it utilizes the Internet for routing these calls, it is based on web-driven technology. This means that it essentially uses “free” networking and more modern protocols, which is good. Unfortunately, this means that it is also subject to all the downsides of the Internet, including sporadic performance, hackers and viruses. Because they depend on network connections, Internet telephones also depend on electricity to operate, so they are useless during blackouts.

But, the problems go deeper than that. VOIP providers may or may not offer 911 access, and most people automatically assume that an emergency call can be made from any telephone. Even when 911 service is on the menu, chances are that the VOIP call will be routed to a seven-digit non-emergency number. In addition to not providing the ANI/ALI that is critical to enhanced 911, VOIP calls will then compete with non-emergency requests.

Far worse consequences await, however, if these calls are directed to an administrative number that is not answered after hours. Such was the case recently in Torrington, CT, when a mother dialed 911 through Vonage after her baby stopped breathing. Instead of getting help, she heard a recorded message thanking her for calling the police department, and advising her to hang up and dial 911 if she had an emergency. Eventually, the parents transported the child to the hospital themselves, and he is now recovering. The State Attorney General is investigating. A similar situation in Volusia County, FL, had a less happy ending: a 3-month-old baby died when her mother could not reach emergency services through her VOIP phone.