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. 911 continues to keep up with the times in the Internet age.

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.

The United States was not the first to have a three digit number for emergencies. In 1937, Britain implemented its first emergency dial code, 999. The first call was to report a burglary. In 1957, Sydney, Australia started its own 999 service. By 1957, the first US emergency code was set up by the California Highway Patrol, with the number ZEnith1-2000. 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 those were covered by an enhanced 911 service.

VoIP and cellular phones present a new set of challenges because the service is no longer location-based. Cell phones use GPS chips embedded in the devices to track the location of the caller. The latest research has been into whether a phone can be pinpointed indoors.

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—meaning it connects to the PSTN–deliver all 911 calls to a local PSAP, including having ALI and ANI, that providers allow subscribers an easy way to change address information when they move, and also that they must 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 a location of a user even when he is using the service on the go.

Enhanced 911 is yet another technology that continues to grow and evolve in the 21st century. VoIP providers want to give the best service possible, including the safest service, 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 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.

>See the FCC’s Full VoIP & 911 Consumer Advisory here<<

Additional Reading

Fonality E911 Setup Tutorial – Video 
How to Communicate During a Disaster
The Pros and Cons of Using Google Voice as Your Primary Phone