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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Even if the call does get answered, VOIP architecture can visibly demonstrate the worldwide nature of the web. Dispatchers in Nashville, TN, got proof of this when they received a call for assistance that originated in Houston, TX. The changing face of phone service can also have an impact on the administration of 911. While it was typical for the conventional telephone companies to provide PSAPs with customer counts, wireless and VOIP carriers have not normally shared such information. In fact, since these newest carriers tend to face little or no local regulation, it is often anyone’s guess as to how many providers are located in a given area, let alone customers.

Obviously, issues like that can have a serious impact on public safety, and public safety communications organizations have been quick to comment. The Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International sent a letter to the FCC in response to Vonage’s suggestion that VOIP calls be delivered to seven-digit lines rather than to dedicated 911 trunks. APCO was critical of the proposal, accusing Vonage of “taking a 21st century technology (IP telephony) and forcing it into a 1960s method of reporting life-threatening emergencies.” (The New York City Police Department reports that more than 6,000 VOIP 911 calls have already been answered on its non-emergency administrative numbers.)

Actions taken by the FCC on May 19, 2005, in its First Report and Order on the subject sent a clear message to VOIP providers that an immediate solution to the potentially deadly problems was in order. Establishing a 120-day compliance schedule, the commission required that Internet-based calls be delivered to 911 trunks instead of seven-digit lines, and that they carry with them location information and callback number data. Local telephone providers, which historically operate the 911 network, were also ordered to offer access to VOIP providers to make sure that this solution works.

While the use of a VOIP telephone away from its registered location will still prove problematic, and while this act does nothing to alleviate shrinking 911 revenues caused by alternative technologies like VOIP, it makes significant strides toward solving the most immediately critical issues. FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin, in a statement released in conjunction with the Report and Order, said, “The provision of access to 911 should not be optional for any telephone service provider. We need to take whatever actions are necessary to swiftly enforce these requirements to ensure that no lives are lost due to lack of access to 911.”


Barry Furey, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.