Except for a few policy and public service wonks, most people don’t think twice about 911. What most do know is that it’s a service which exists to help people in emergencies. And aside from those nitwits who occasionally forget that 911 is for emergencies only, most people respect the motivation and expertise of the hard-working, highly-trained individuals who staff the phones to help us in times of crisis.
When 911 is dialed from a traditional landline telephone, the person receiving the call obtains specific information about the location of the caller, including not only the street address, but cross streets and other useful locating information. Given that a first responder has four minutes to get to a person in cardiac arrest, this information is time-critical and its accuracy imperative.
But when 911 is dialed from a wireless phone, the information received is nowhere near as specific. This is one of the reasons that I bang my head against the wall when speaking with friends and colleagues who have abandoned traditional landlines. This is a topic for another day, but be advised that if you call 911 from a wireless phone, you must be prepared to provide specific location information. You cannot rely on the device—regardless of what the salesperson told you—to provide location-specific information.
When 911 is called from behind a multi-line telephone system (MLTS), there are a myriad of other issues, all of which define the word “critical.” If you work for an enterprise (business or government) where the phone system is set to provide the entity’s main listed number as the caller ID (or, in technical terms, Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Information, aka ANI/ALI), the first responder may see the name XYZ Bank, but have no idea which floor, or in what location on that floor, the call was submitted. Compounding this problem, the first responder has no number to return the emergency call except the bank’s main listed number. Obviously, this creates a life-threatening problem if the first responder cannot identify where the problem is when every second counts.
Secondly, if the phone system requires that users dial a digit before making an outside call (many entities use “9”), does this mean that someone in an emergency must call 9911? Are employees aware of this? Thirdly, if the entity doesn’t require that extra digit to get an outside line, are there people with what the telecommerari (think the unlikely combination of telecom + glitterari) call “fat finger disease,” who dial 9 to get an outside line, and then inadvertently hit 1 twice, causing the rescue squad to respond when there is, in fact, no emergency—just a wrong number?
As is often the case, it’s much easier to define the questions than offer the answers. Legally, there is no federal 911/E911 policy. This is partly because this type of service falls under different governmental areas, making issue ownership impossible to quantify. As such, issues of E911 policy have been left to the states. At this time, only 16 states (AK, AR, CO, CT, FL, IL, KY, LA, MA, ME, MN, MS, RI, TX, VT and WA) have put in place rules and regulations to address information requirements for multi-line telephone systems. With 34 states not taking a stand on this issue, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA or nena.org) recently reissued its model legislation to help legislators close the gap in those states that have yet to act.
Specifically, NENA felt compelled to take this action because emergency dialing from multi-line telephone systems is a critical piece of today’s communications infrastructure, and customers (wrongly) assume that these issues have all been worked out because they can simply dial 911. "Based on information we have received from the MLTS community, we can safely estimate that only 25 percent of the MLTS systems have the proper programming in place to deal with emergency calls properly, including a large group of systems, (VoIP and Legacy TDM) that are exposed. It's literally a ticking time bomb, and one that is ignored too often,” said Mark Fletcher, who leads NENA's MLTS Technical Subcommittee, in addition to his role as Nortel's E911 Product Line Manager. What administrators fail to realize is that the information sent to emergency responders is often inadequate or inaccurate (or both), thus jeopardizing the life of a person experiencing significant medical distress.
With this in mind, all businesses and government agencies should assess their compliance with Illinois’ Emergency Telephone System Act (50 ILCS 750). If a business covers more than 40,000 square feet (with some exceptions), they are required to provide location information within a minimum of each 40,000-square-foot area, preferably each outbound telephone. If a business is located in several small buildings on the same campus, compliance is mandated even if the building size does not reach 40,000 square feet. If an entity operates a telephone system where a user would dial a ‘9’ to make an outside call (PBX or Hybrid), rather than choosing a line by selecting from a row of available line buttons to make a call (Key System), compliance is mandated.
There are several exceptions to this legislation, some of which include 24-hour on-site security or medical staff who have the ability to see the location of a generated 911 call on a console or other device. This is important because we continue to encounter business owners who are unaware of this obligation. Plain and simple, it’s a matter of life and death. And, by the way, employers who have not provided sufficient information to assist first responders, have been held liable under theories of negligence, as well as OSHA rules, resulting in not only large verdicts, but actual multi-million-dollar settlements. iBi