When you call 911, where do the police/fire/ambulance go ?
To your Dispatchable Location!
Before 911 was created in the USA over fifty years ago, it is possible to imagine that most people just dialed zero for the operator when they needed help. There were no cell phones or mobile Voice-over-internet-Protocol (VoiP) phones – only land-lines, at relatively fixed physical locations. Soon after 911, Enhanced 911 (E911) was introduced, with automatic relaying of customer location information from the phone company to the emergency operators at the nearest Public-Safety Answering Point (PSAP).
Many lives saved with E911! Thank you first responders!
Fast forward to today, when many carriers don’t even route single-zero operator calls anymore, but 911 access is nearly ubiquitous, and almost 9 out of 10 calls to 911 are made from cell phones, which can move any where at any time. Now where does the ambulance go ? Satellite GPS works great outside but is usually not very reliable inside large buildings. And relying on cell tower accuracy can put you off by hundreds of yards, indoors or out.
Even further outliers are VoiP phones and ioT devices, which connect from any where on the internet, presenting even more geographical challenges. The first challenge is one of remembering to update your physical street address for E911 with your SIP trunking provider whenever you move. Although some providers offer public-facing web forms for making this as easy as possible, and Penguin PBX Solutions offers handy handset stickers, any changes can still take time to propagate.
The worst case scenarios involve loss of life due to misdirected emergency services going to an old address.
However, accurate address information is not sufficient to solve all problems related to modern 911 systems. Some make the case that calling mental health professionals instead of 911 can help save lives. And super-accurate location disclosure is the main problem with swatting – something particularly hard for basic VoiP services to solve alone (although some local governments are trying to help on this issue.)
It is likely a combination of factors, as well as terrible dial plan rules, which recently prompted significant state and federal government intervention in to the market for Multi-Line Telephone Systems (MLTS) and every business VoiP telephone in the country. Many of these changes start taking effect next month!
Click to read the changes to MLTS 911 service requirements coming in February 2020 per 47 CFR Subpart F.
These changes will impact many PBX systems, including those based on ASTERISK® and FreePBX®. But it does appear that only new installations are the issue – not existing systems – although Penguin PBX Solutions does not provide legal advice. You, dear reader running your own phone system, should read the entire section, including paragraph § 9.16 (b) Obligation of installers, managers, or operators. Sub-paragraph (2).
After you do, then you might want to adapt Always Be Conferencing, from Penguin PBX Solutions, for use in your plans to notify front-desk and security staff when somebody in your organization dials 911. Of particular interest is the ability to keep the call going amongst pertinent personnel, even if the caller hangs up the phone, or the PSAP is not reachable due to software failure of some external parts of the 911 network. (It happened again just last week in Minnesota and rural areas are hit hard with phone outages more than you might expect.)
What Always Be Conferencing does is take a distributed approach to the problem. Although it appears the new laws mandate that you only need to notify somebody if there’s a 911 call across your MLTS, by sending a text message for example, should that really be the end of it ? For businesses, does it make more sense to instantly conference in other employees who can render aid immediately on the actual 911 call without having to describe what is your city and call back number or wait on hold for 911 operators or just wait for help to arrive ?
“When seconds count, the police are only minutes away.” ~NRA
Regarding the questions raised in the new laws about “dispatchable location” requirements, which are being phased in over the next couple of years for new systems, Always Be Conferencing includes preliminary support for Geolocation/GPS co-ordinates to be sent along with the call as part of the SIP header per RFC6442. There’s not (yet) lots of publicly-documented telco APIs that support this, but some providers are more open and flexible than others.
(Un)fortunately, there aren’t (yet) any VoiP desk phones with built-in GPS that could be used to automatically specify latitude and longitude in real-time at the start of the emergency call. Until then, large centralized databases receiving manual user updates seem to be one of the few preferred solutions to the “dispatchable location” question, despite the significant privacy concerns involved with storing such information. Maybe an employee does not want their home address published into this new database – are they now excluded from taking a desk phone home and locked out of four digit dialing their peers ?
Besides approaches like Always Be Conferencing, there are other things you can do to help your users w/r/t emergency calling when using a customizable PBX phone system based on ASTERISK, particularly for telecommuters with desk phones at home:
Eliminate dialing prefix digits not just on 911 but all your calls.
Place warning stickers on handsets, update employee manuals, and train your users.
Buy new SIP trunks – one for each “dispatchable location” such as floor, room, house, barn, etc.
Change outbound caller ID based on subnet, phone type, phase of the moon, etc. (j/k on the moon 🌜)
Confirm call-backs to these numbers pass through to the phone(s) in that immediate area. (TODO: implement dynamic DID mapping from a pool of numbers specifically for 911 call-backs to phones which normally do not have an external DID, such as waiting areas.)
Dial emergency calls out dedicated analog or T1 lines from the local telephone company that tie into the local PSAP in the most direct way possible (911 tandem switches), avoiding the internet/hosted/cloud VoiP path and their national emergency call centers altogether.
Spool reminder calls to any desk phone as soon as it changes IP or subnet. This helps telecommuters self-manage their device’s “dispatchable location.” Such a system could be coupled with existing pre-auth for IP changes eg. visiting a hidden URL to open up corporate firewall to a new employee IP also prompts for current street address. On some desk phones, the web form could be displayed in the phone mini-browser, allowing updates from the key pad.
Pop-up a message at the end of the day suggesting telecommuters turn off their phones at night. This saves electricity and renders the station inoperable in the sense that it no longer has dialing facilities when the power is off.
If available, use home land line numbers as the emergency caller ID for telecommuters. But some providers might not let you push alternate caller ID, due possibly to STIR/SHAKEN restrictions rolling out this year, so it will need testing (and more on-going testing in the future.)
How to test emergency calls ?
Add 933 to your dial plan for testing the same exact call flow as 911. Many VoiP providers support calling 933 to verify your address. A recorded message should congratulate you for updating your “dispatchable location” street address, and read it back to you (but it depends on your provider.)
Before testing 911 directly, you must first get permission from the PSAP’s administrative offices – the non-emergency line – such as via 311 or local 7/10 digit number. They can give you more exact procedures, preferred off-peak test times, etc.
IMPORTANT: This is not legal advice! And it is a new area of concern. Please do your own research using the many links included above.
* ASTERISK and FreePBX are registered trademarks of Sangoma.