E911 and the safety of your VoIP users

Posted on October 8, 2014

VoIP of all kinds is hugely beneficial to business. But if it’s not configured properly, your Enterprise VoIP service can be dangerous to the health of your users. Enhanced 911 (E911) services are important. Here’s how you can be sure your users are protected, and still switch all your phone lines to VoIP.

Traditional landline telephone numbers are linked to a specific, physical location, so knowing where to send help, in the event of an emergency call, is easy. All local Public-safety Answering Points (PSAPs), where all 911 calls are handled, have access to the Automatic Location Information (ALI) database maintained by the local carrier, which gives them the specific physical address associated with the number calling in. They know exactly where to send the appropriate emergency response professionals.

The evolution of risk

In this age of mobility, most phone numbers are no longer tied to a physical address. Calls are coming from an IP address associated to a call server that might be located thousands of miles from the actual caller. If bad things happen and a user needs emergency help, it can be impossible for the network to know where to send the call.

This situation is the primary reason some organizations continue to hold on to at least one physical landline, so that they feel emergency services will know where to come.

E911 to the rescue

E911 ties a physical address to your IP phone numbers. So that if a particular device is configured with a number as its caller ID, the device is also outwardly identifying its physical street address. Which is great, if the endpoint advertising the number hasn’t moved.

There are a few different ways you can store physical address information for your VoIP-based phones. For starters, you can subscribe to Private-Switch Automatic Location Information (PS-ALI) service, which is a way to directly register specific locations, down to floor and room, with your local PSAP. But in that case, users need to actually be tied to a physical location and the information is only updated once every 24 hours, so mobility remains an issue.

Enterprise On-Premises

For the enterprise, third party on-prem products like the Emergency Gateway from E911 Enable can identify and precisely locate “IP phones, soft phones, and wireless phones as they are added, moved, or removed on the corporate network.” And there are cloud-based SaaS solutions, like RedSky’s E911 Manager® and E911 Anywhere® that can achieve the same result.

But these services can require expensive licenses, can be troublesome to integrate with your infrastructure, and require management through a dedicated interface. Plus, if a device is operating outside of your network, it’s location remains a mystery. If any of that is a problem for you, there is another way.

VoIP Providers

Because the FCC requires all VoIP providers that integrate with the PSTN (including wireless) to provide E911 to customers, you have an option through your carrier, and you should take a serious look at what’s offered. Your carrier may have just what you need, or their offering might cause you to look for a new provider.

Just like the on-prem and hosted options I mentioned above, E911 integrated into your phone service comes in all sorts of shapes and colors. You’ll get the benefit of managing E911 directly from the same interface you use to manage your phone lines, and there’s no worry about interop or added infrastructure, but you should confirm the adaptability of the system your provider offers. If they’re simply providing a subscription to a PS-ALI database, you know the limitations. You also need to look at the detail you can include in the address information. If you’re not able to drill down to the suite number, you’ll have to manage Emergency Location Identification Numbers in addition to E911 addresses anyway.

Of course, the trade off for unified management, and escape from license fees, is a more manual process. When users move around (including to locations outside your network), they (or you) would be required to update the address associated with their number to ensure the service always knows where they are. Having all known addresses preconfigured in your account will make the switch easy, but there’s still time involved.

So how do you protect your people?

There’s room in the market for a solution that makes mobility easy. Many current options in the market require manual reporting as users leave your WAN. As we’ve seen, checking in wherever you go isn’t a hard habit to learn, but most people don’t expect to get into an emergency while checking emails at a coffee shop. Until it’s automatic, it’s not entirely safe.

In the meantime, E911 is proven safe and reliable for fixed locations. It’s hard to find an enterprise that has all desk workers or all mobile employees. Chances are, you’ve got a mix. In which case, a lot of people will tell you, buy a license for those mobile resources to keep their location up to date without requiring constant check ins, and lock in the location of all those desk phones that are always within reach. If you can see use for both a third party solution that tracks locations as best it can, as well as provider based E911 that can keep up with defined moves, a hybrid solution makes sense.

Side note: Your obligation

Here’s a note on the rules and what your, and your provider’s, obligations are.

The FCC actually mandates that interconnected VoIP providers meet E911 obligations, and 17 states have legislation requiring enterprises to provide E911 protection to employees. So if your voice system runs on VoIP (or SIP trunking), you’re putting your employees at risk without an E911 solution in place and opening up your organization to potentially serious legal problems.

Assess your needs, evaluate your options (starting with your provider), and implement a solution. Do it now, to keep everyone safe.