Imagine dialing 911 and hearing an automated voice tell you that what you have dialed is not a valid number; or reaching a 911 call center only to have emergency personnel dispatched to the wrong location. In response to such problems, the FCC recently released a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) asking a broad range of questions about the capability of enterprise-based communications systems (ECS) – internal phone systems used in places like office buildings, campuses and hotels –to provide access for 911 calls.

According to the FCC, certain of these systems may not support direct 911 dialing, may not have the capability to route calls to the appropriate 911 call center, or may not provide accurate information on the caller’s location. The NOI seeks public comment on consumer expectations regarding the ability to access 911 call centers when calling from an ECS, and seeks ways, including regulation if needed, to improve the capabilities of ECS to provide direct access for 911 calls.

The FCC generally requires telephone service providers to offer enhanced 911 service, which basically means that the provider will forward the caller’s telephone number and registered location to the appropriate public safety answering point (PSAP), which should be the 911 call center closest to the caller. Call takers at the PSAP are then responsible for dispatching the appropriate emergency responder – police, fire or ambulance.

ECS equipment, which supports multiple users with individual handsets and unique extensions across a company, for example, have historically presented challenges for 911 service because the location information and phone numbers transmitted to the PSAP may not be the same as that of the actual calling party or may fail to provide the level of detail (floor or office number) required to locate the caller in an office building with multiple floors.

Another lingering problem has been the requirement to dial a digit (typically 9) to inform the ECS that the call is to go outside the organization (or hotel) and not to another employee extension (or another room). There have been tragic cases where someone needing help has dialed “911” only to have the ECS think that the caller is dialing 9 to reach an outside number, and then dialing “11”, which is not a valid phone number. The result is not even reaching a wrong number (certainly a problem in an emergency), but having the system fail to make any call at all. The result is at best a delay in getting emergency services, and at worst the caller giving up on reaching emergency personnel as they struggle to deal with the emergency itself.

This problem has been amplified by changes in technology that now favor Internet-protocol or cloud-based technologies, both of which encourage mobility by end users. In particular, employees can now access ECS not just through traditional desk phones, but through applications on mobile phones or through software on laptops and tablets. Employees can also log into handsets in offices in different cities that give the appearance that the employee is in his or her home office. In all of these cases, unless the user takes steps to update their location for 911 purposes, it’s likely that a call to 911 will be routed to the PSAP associated with the home office; not the PSAP closest to the calling party.

The NOI recognizes that a number of states have adopted requirements for 911 service provided by ECS operators. These include laws mandating direct 911 dialing and location accuracy, including ECS delivery of more precise location information (e.g., an apartment number or floor). Moreover, Congress is considering legislation that requires ECS equipment to have a configuration that permits users to call 911 without dialing any code or prefix.

The NOI does not propose any immediate solutions but asks broad questions, including:

  • ECS marketplace: What are the number and types of ECS vendors and equipment; how are 911 calls typically handled and equipment’s existing capabilities, the number of subscribers using ECS and the percentage of 911 calls originating from ECS, the ability to support more than voice communications (e.g., video and text), whether there are technical barriers to providing a more reliable or accurate 911 service, how often calls are routed to the wrong PSAP, and the capabilities of misrouted calls to be re-routed to the correct PSAP;
  • VoIP: The capabilities of Voice over IP providers to support 911; whether the 911 registered location is for the enterprise owner or the end user, and whether VoIP providers can provide location information automatically without relying on customer-provided information;
  • Cost considerations: The cost of adapting ECS equipment to support 911 calling; who bears those costs; whether costs have been impacted by new technology; the costs for complying with state 911 laws, and whether insurers provide incentives for enterprise owners to implement 911;
  • Consumer expectations: Whether consumers expect 911 calls from an ECS will be quickly routed to the correct PSAP, whether consumers are aware of disparate dialing arrangements to reach 911 from certain ECS; and whether the ubiquity of wireless phones make it less likely that a caller will use a hotel or business phone to call 911; and
  • Options: Whether states are best positioned to devise rules for ECS in their jurisdiction; whether 911 capabilities of ECS should be uniform on a nationwide basis; whether there is any action the FCC should consider to encourage voluntary implementation of 911 for ECS; whether additional voluntary best practices, technical or operational standards should be established and who should monitor implementation; and what role, if any, the FCC should take and whether it should adopt new rules requiring ECS implementation of 911 or update its existing rules for VoIP, wireless and telecom carriers to better support implementation of 911 for ECS.

Comments on the NOI are due November 15 and replies are due December 15. As demonstrated by the unprecedented number of destructive hurricanes this month, reliably reaching 911 in any circumstance can be critical. The changes that may result from this proceeding will be important for both communications service providers and users of enterprise communications systems.