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The Importance of E911 Services

Friday, June 5, 2015 - 13:30
E911 Services Important

Recent tragic events occurring within organizations where E911 services have not been proactively addressed has led the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to issue a Notice of Inquiry regarding Multi-Line Telephone Systems.   This action follows the devastating impact many of these networks experienced as a result of the unanticipated “derecho” storm in June of 2012.

derecho storm is defined by the National Weather Service as a widespread, long-lived wind storm associated with a band of rapidly moving showers or thunderstorms.  This storm swiftly struck the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic United States, leaving millions of Americans without 911 service and revealed significant, but avoidable, vulnerabilities in 911 network architecture, maintenance, and operation.  In response to tragedies like those occurring in 2012 and in similar storms and outages since, FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai issued a statement in 2014 that the tragedies “will not be in vain if we can take action to ensure that whenever someone calls 9-1-1, they connect with emergency personnel.”

The Function of the 911 Network

As most people know, the primary function of the 911 network is to route emergency calls to the geographically appropriate Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) based on the caller’s location.  When a caller dials 9-1-1 from a landline, the call goes to the local switch serving that caller.  Then the switch sends the call to an aggregation point called a selective router.  The router then uses the caller’s phone number and associated address to determine the appropriate PSAP that should receive and handle the call.

With wireless cell phone calls to 911, the process is similar to that of wired calls.  The call flows through a switch – called a mobile switching center – prior to reaching the selective router.  For wireless calls, the sector of the tower serving the call provides the approximate location of the caller and therefore, which nearby PSAP will handle those particular calls.

When any of these 911 calls reaches the appropriate PSAP, the PSAP checks an Automatic Location Identification (ALI) database to determine the exact location of the caller.  For landline or wired calls, the address is associated with the caller’s phone number.  And for wireless calls, providers can use different technologies to determine the caller’s location.

The Problem

The 911 network architecture discussed above is evolving from a circuit-switched network to a Next Generation 911 (NG911) network that is based on Internet Protocol (IP) technology.  While advancements in technologies provide many benefits, including greater redundancy and reliability, there are inherent challenges with an IP-based system when it comes to 911 services.

For example, when a person dials 9-1-1 from within an enterprise telephone system, the billing address of the organization is the information that will likely make its way to the Public Safety Answering Point – if measures haven’t been implemented for E911.  As the billing address of a large enterprise may not be the same as the physical address for many of its employees, emergency response personnel could end up being deployed to the wrong location – possibly states away from the caller’s actual location.  Any enterprise that uses a multi-line telephone system puts an end-user at risk if no action has taken place to ensure that E911-specific location information is being pushed out and shown as the correct physical 9-1-1 location.

What Do E911 Services Provide?

E911 allows companies to create ALI records for each telephone and every Emergency Response Location (ERL).  It promises the delivery of a detailed location record to the correct Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), which in turn, provides emergency responders with the correct location information for the building, floor, or office in which the emergency is actually occurring.

FCC Guidelines for E911

In order to ensure a timely response for callers routing from an IP-PBX, the FCC has adoptedrules that improve the reliability and resiliency of 911 communications networks across the nation. These rules require that 911 service providers take reasonable measures to provide dependable 911 service through an annual certification process.  Providers can comply with this requirement by either 1) Implementing certain industry “best practices”; or, 2) By implementing alternative measures that are reasonably sufficient to ensure reliable 911 services.  To meet certification criteria, these measures – created by the Communications Security, Reliability, and Interoperability Council (CSRIC) – must be properly described and include supporting documentation that is provided to the Commission.

Upon review of the certification information from a service provider, the FCC may require remedial action to correct vulnerabilities in a service provider’s 911 network, and fix any possible deficiencies in their certification plan. Additionally, the FCC also requires 911 service providers to deliver Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) with timely and actionable notification of 911 outages.

Trend towards State Requirements for E911 Service

To continue the FCC’s stance on providing nationwide E911 service, twenty-two states currently have E-911 legislation enacted or have pending legislation that requires organizations over a particular size – or those purchasing a new PBX – to implement E911 for the safety of their employees, students, and visitors.  The mandates vary by state, but may include a stipulation for specific square footage requirements for an enterprise’s location.

The Solution – Practical Implementation Methods for E911

The first company to market with their E911 service was West IP Communications (now West Unified Communications Services) in 2002.  Here are some of the ways in which West IPC fulfills E911 standards for its customers.  For locations where West IPC provides interconnected voice services to their customers, West works with each customer to prepare a list containing the specific position and location of each physical IP Phone installed with sufficient detail to meet E911 provisioning guidelines.  The purpose of the information is to provide detailed location information for the 911 operator in the event that 9-1-1 is dialed from a particular IP Phone in a 911 coverage area.

Additionally, West IP Communications provides stickers to customers that should be used for placement on each telephone provided by West.  These stickers indicate the instructions for dialing 911 and contain a warning notifying the user of any 911 limitations.  Furthermore, West works with its customers to ensure that new location information is provided to West in writing when a telephone, user, or device is moved to a new location – whether the device or phone was provided by West or anyone else.

And to round out its E911 service offerings, West’s Intrado division acquired 911 Enable. Together, Intrado and 911 Enable plan to build on their respective expertise in enterprise VoIP 911 and public safety communications, to deliver improved emergency response to businesses, government entities, educational, and nonprofit organizations of all types and sizes.  Founded in 2005, 911 Enable is an industry-leading provider of E911 emergency solutions for VoIP and Unified Communications (UC).

As the trend continues toward cloud-based or IP-PBX-based phone systems, it is crucial that organizations work together with service providers to meet or exceed FCC guidelines for E911 service.  Doing so will not just meet “best practices”, it may save lives.

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