How 9-1-1 Works

VoIP Issues

IP phone
IP phone
Photo courtesy Consumer Guide Products

­Another technology that can cause problems in 9-1-1 emergencies is VoIP, or voice-over-Internet protocol. Some estimates have about 15 million people in the United States using VoI­P by 2008. When VoIP systems first gained popularity, there were some problems when it came to accessing 9-1-1 emergency services. Some VoIP customers reported not being able to reach 9-1-1 at all. In those cases, the VoIP provider often did not configure the individual system to access 9-1-1, which can take some tweaks. Sometimes the VoIP subscriber was supposed to specifically ask for full 9-1-1 access, a requirement buried somewhere in the small print of some service contracts. Usually, though, the problem was on the receiving end: The responding PSAP couldn't see the VoIP caller's location information because, in a sense, that phone number has no physical location.

Many VoIP systems are completely portable, working from any broadband connection -- in essence, the "phone number" is an IP address. As far as 9-1-1 is concerned, VoIP works totally differently from a regular telephone, and it works in numerous different ways depending on how the signal is being carried -- it could be via cable modem, DSL, T1, and a wired or wireless network, to name just a few varying parameters. In most home VoIP setups, voice signals start in the PSTN, switch to the Internet for the majority of their journey, and then get back on the phone lines. When, where or if the call gets routed to the dedicated 9-1-1 phone switch depends on the individual VoIP system. One system, Intrado's V9-1-1 Mobility Service, looks something like this:

The FCC has mandated that all VoIP providers include full, default access to 9-1-1 services (the customer doesn't have to request it) and that providers require a default physical location when setting up the account. This is the information that will be passed to the PSAP if you call 9-1-1 from that account.

It's unclear whether all VoIP providers have reached full FCC compliance at this time, so read your VoIP service agreement carefully to see if you need to give your service provider additional information (such as a default address) in order to have full 9-1-1 capabilities. Remember also that VoIP systems can go down if the power is out or your broadband connection fails, so you may want to get a generator to supply power to your VoIP phone line. You might also consider maintaining a regular phone line in the event that you can't call out from your VoIP phone.

In the face of new technology requirements, local 9-1-1 systems are undergoing some big changes. Some counties are starting to transfer 9-1-1 information via secure Intranet instead of relying only on phone lines. The digitization of data is the next step in 9-1-1 communications and will likely require a complete reformatting of the 9-1-1 infrastructure. This move would increase collaboration between emergency agencies by allowing for consistent information sharing and greater overall accessibility. In the far future, it could allow for the transfer of multimedia files, like a caller's cell-phone video clip of the emergency she's reporting, directly to the call-taker's computer screen.

Now that we've addressed the technology that makes 9-1-1 work, it's time to look at the rest of the equation: the people who make it work.