For nearly fifty years, the three digits “9-1-1” have been synonymous with emergency calling in the United States. Enhanced 911 (also called E-911, E911, etc.) takes information about the caller and sends it to the emergency operators. Business VoIP systems add convenience and opportunities for extended communications, and E911 (which is called E112 in Europe) helps businesses and individuals using VoIP receive the emergency services that they need, regardless of location.
What is E911?
E911 is a means for VoIP connected users to reach emergency services. Enhanced 911 works by sending your location and phone number to a PSAP, or Public Safety Answering Point, which is a call center where operators route your call to police, fire, or other emergency responders.
An enhanced 911 call has a system in place called Automatic Number Identification, or ANI, and Automatic Location Identification, or ALI, which is sent to and displayed on the screens of operators. In addition, an enhanced 911 call will connect you to the nearest PSAP, a process called selective routing.
In 1967, a study commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson recommended a single number nationwide for emergencies. In 1968, AT&T announced that their customers would use the digits 9-1-1 to report emergencies. By the end of the 20th century, nearly 93% of the United States was covered by 911, and about 95% of the area covered also had access to an enhanced 911 service.
Unfortunately, by default, VoIP doesn’t mesh well with traditional 911. This is because VoIP phones aren’t location-based like traditional PSTN landline phones. Instead, ALI and ANI systems are required so that emergency services that are local to the VoIP device’s location can respond.
Additionally, VoIP providers are granted access to existing 911 dispatch centers thanks to the New and Emerging Technologies 911 Improvement Act of 2008. Before this, traditional PSTN carriers were known to block or impede VoIP.
E911: Landlines and Mobile
For E911, traditional PSTN-based landline phones don’t need location-based service. This is because these phones are statically placed, and emergency services use the registered location of the phone to respond to the call. Still, what if you’re using a VoIP gateway or ATA to connect traditional phones to a VoIP system? In this case, you’ll need to register the address of any VoIP devices with the provider’s E911.
Smartphones are a little different. Modern mobile phones have access to 911, even if the phone isn’t activated. With mobiles, emergency services staff triangulate locations based on the GPS receiver or via radiolocation, which uses cell phone towers to home in on a device’s location.
But, what happens when you don’t have cell service but have access to Wi-Fi? When this is the case, and you’re using a VoIP provider to stay connected, you can use your service provider’s E911 service. Using ANI and ALI will provide services with enough information to get within 300 meters of the device.
E911 and VoIP
At first, the FCC took a more lenient approach to VoIP in regards to 911, but by 2005, regulation began to take shape. The FCC requires that any interconnected VoIP service that connects to the PSTN delivers all 911 calls to a local PSAP. This includes providers that use ALI and ANI, and these providers must allow subscribers with an easy way to change the default address when needed. They also must also inform subscribers of the limitations of VoIP 911 compared to wireline 911.
In 2005, a family in Houston, TX that subscribed to Vonage was the victim of a break-in. When they called 911, they were informed that they hadn’t opted in to the service and wouldn’t be able to connect to the police. Greg Abbott, the Attorney General of Texas, consequently sued Vonage for not making it clear that subscribers had to opt in.
Skype, when threatened with regulation, disconnected from Norway’s PSTN, urging that regulators not hold them to the same standard as old-fashioned technology. Fortunately, not all VoIP providers dug their heels. Packet8, now known as 8×8, teamed with Level (3) to introduce the first VoIP E-911 service.
All VoIP providers outsource their E911 offerings. Some of the popular E911 providers are RedSky, 911Enable, and 911etc. By working with outsourced companies, hosted VoIP providers are able to concentrate on building their business while obeying the law. For the system to work properly, it is vital that subscribers keep their E-911 information up to date on their provider’s database.
New research is going into new ways to pinpoint the location of a user even when using the service on the go. For example, Bandwidth recently launched a solution for direct routing and dynamic E911 for Microsoft Teams that uses the dynamic location tools of that platform to better pinpoint where employees are.
How to Set Up an E911 Address
The method to set up an E911 address varies from provider to provider, but in most cases, it can be done through the VoIP system’s portal. The important thing to understand is that the address you place as your primary address should be the location where the VoIP service is most commonly used.
This will be considered the emergency address. Once you’ve configured one, you will usually be able to add others as needed. Just remember that you’ll have to update this info if you move the VoIP phone to another location. For safety, providers like RingCentral will not allow you to initiate an outbound call without an emergency address.
Here’s a simplified method for setting up an E911 that should work for most providers.
- Navigate to your provider’s app or control panel/portal.
- Find the app settings or account info section.
- Find the section labeled E911 or 911 address
- Click in the name of the business, the address, and any other identifying information.
- Click apply or submit.
E911 Technology is Evolving for Business Safety
Enhanced 911 is yet another technology that continues to grow and evolve in the 21st century. VoIP providers want to give the best (and safest) service possible, but because VoIP is not location-sensitive, it can create problems for providers and lawmakers. Fortunately, the trend is moving in the direction of more mobility and more safety.
When you sign up for VoIP services, you must give a permanent address along with your name. Also, if you change addresses, be sure to update it with your VoIP provider to ensure accurate 911 routing. This technology is designed to keep you and your employees safe, so be sure to consistently update the information so that dispatchers route with the highest level of efficiency.
Of course, you and your employees will not always be at the home location, but ALI and ANI features will ensure that services will be able to reach those in need. Several SIP trunking providers also grant access to E911 services, so check out our guides to learn more about these.