The 911 Test

On Twitter, Andrew Mayes posted a link to an October 3 story posted by The Verge titled This is what happens when 911 fails.  The article talks about experiences people had trying to call 911, via landline or mobile, as well as troubles that 911 dispatchers have sometimes experienced in trying to locate mobile callers.  One area not mentioned by the author was Voice over IP (VoIP).  Unfortunately, the story isn’t any better in the mystical VoIP wonderland.

If you have a business, especially if your business uses VoIP for outside phone service, have you done a 911 test?  If not, do one soon!

I was a phone system administrator at Mindspeed for four years.  I got involved in the deployment of our Cisco IP-based phone system (running Cisco Unified Communications Manager 7.5) when it was deployed in the US, and I quickly became the primary phone system administrator for all of our offices worldwide.  I managed the worldwide deployment, working with our IT people across the globe.

In Newport Beach, the company HQ, we originally had two Verizon T1s (two ISDN PRIs) with one AT&T Fractional T1 (an older-style CAS T1) as a backup.  We eventually moved to an AT&T SIP trunk (running on top of our 150 MBps fiber Ethernet Internet link) for primary phone, with a single ISDN PRI as a backup.  Whenever we did a change, I performed a 911 test.

Before I continue, an important note:  If you do not have an emergency, then DO NOT call 911, unless you have permission!

A 911 test is fairly easy to do:

  1. Set up one desk phone for each type of outside phone service at your office.  In my case, for Newport Beach, I had one desk phone that would call out only via VoIP, and one that would call out only via PRI.
  2. Enable logging, traces, diagnostics, etc..  In my case, I already had debug traces being collected for most services, so I turned on debugging of ISDN and SIP signaling on the voice gateways.
  3. Using one of the desk phones, call your local Police department’s main phone number (not 911).  Say where you work, and ask for permission to do a 911 test call.  They will probably transfer you to their dispatch office.
  4. Tell the next person who you are, who you work for, say that you just did some phone system maintenance, and ask for permission to make a 911 test call (or two, or three, one call for each type of outside phone service).
  5. If you are given permission to make the calls, then hang up and immediately call 911 from the first desk phone.  When the 911 dispatcher answers, immediately say your name, and that you are making a test call from (your company name).  Ask the 911 dispatcher to tell you what address they see the call coming from, and what phone number they see for the incoming call.
  6. Repeat Step 5 for each additional desk phone you have set up for testing.  When you make the last call, tell the dispatcher that this is your last test call, and then them for their assistance.
  7. Disable logging, traces, diagnostics, etc..

Doing a test like this during the day is fine, because there are likely fewer 911 calls during the day compared so, say, a Saturday night or a weekday rush hour.

When I did this test, the PRI always passed:  The 911 dispatcher got my phone number, business name, and address as soon as the call came in.  The VoIP test, on the other hand, always seemed to have problems:  The dispatcher would not get any address information.

I was laid off (a casualty of the purchase of Mindspeed by MACOM) before this was fully resolved, and it looked like the Cisco phone system was probably going away anyway.  Still, before I left, I made sure that 911 calls would go out over the PRI whenever possible, only falling back to the VoIP line if the PRI was down.

Today, there are three options for telephone service:  Landline, mobile, satellite, and VoIP.  I know nothing about satellite, although I believe sat phones have access to 24/7/365 worldwide emergency response centers hosted by companies like Iridium, etc..  Landline (which includes PRI) will always give you the best emergency response, because those systems existed even before 911 did, so the integration is that much more solid.  Mobile 911 dispatching, as we read in the Verge article, is much harder to do, because the location is so much more flexible.

With VoIP, the location is even harder to pin down.  There is no communication between the VoIP provider and the user’s local ISP, so the VoIP provider has to rely on the user to maintain their current address in the provider’s database.  When you have companies with employees spread out across a city, a state, or a planet, simply relying on the billing address is not enough.

Before I left Mindspeed, I did talk to AT&T about how I could get location information relayed to our local 911 dispatch.  I was pointed to several commercial e911 service providers.  That was a year or two ago, but I doubt much has changed.

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