Calling 911 from a VoIP line – what you need to know

How does VoIP 911 work and how is it different from traditional 911

The capacity to access emergency services has been a concern for businesses and residential consumers since the launch of VoIP. Meanwhile, VoIP service providers have worked on perfecting solutions to make sure their customers feel safe using Internet Telephony.

The real challenge when using VoIP to access emergency services is not actually calling 911, but the identification of the caller’s location, the so-called Enhanced 911, or E911. As such, while VoIP is considered a “nomadic” service, almost every VoIP provider still provides its customers the possibility to have E911 services.

Due to the fact that a VoIP phone service can be used anywhere where there is an Internet connection and with any phone number, the identification of the caller’s location during a 911 call is extremely difficult compared to traditional lines, which have individual copper wires, and send the calls directly to a local Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Calling emergency numbers using an Internet phone line while having your location identified is not impossible though, it is just done in a different way.

VoIP providers making E911 possible

VoIP phone providers will make localization possible by adding another entity between the VoIP user and the PSAP. The 911 operator will confirm the location with the caller, and then route the call to the appropriate PSAP. In case the caller is unable to speak, the operator will take the address from the VoIP provider’s database, and route the call to the location associated with the account.

This is why it’s very important to have the address where the VoIP service is actually used. If your VoIP device is moved to a location other than the address associated with your account in the VoIP provider’s records, your 911 call will be directed to the 911 response center associated with your service address, not the location of your device.

Limitations you should be aware of

Although most VoIP providers use the procedure described above to handle emergency 911 calls, not all provide the capability to call 911, so make sure you ask your provider before opening an account. Also, remember that this is considered as a “best effort” service, which means that no VoIP provider will guarantee that your call will reach the answering center or that the answering center will have your address at hand. In case you have one available, use an alternative mean for reaching 911, such as a mobile phone or a landline.

VoIP phone services will be unavailable in the event of a power interruption, an Internet outage or if your modem, router or phone is not functioning properly.

A phone number can be linked to only one address in a VoIP provider/ answering center’s database. For Hosted PBX services, where multiple extensions use the same number, only the main company number and the main company service address will be on file for 911, regardless of where your associated extension is located. Ask for a direct number to be assigned to each extension in case you want all locations to be listed.

After all the above has been said, it’s pretty obvious that not being able to call 911 from a VoIP line is a myth. Furthermore, a statement about E-911 not being available using a VoIP system is not completely accurate either. Using VoIP to reach emergency services puts indeed some of the responsibility on the user’s shoulders when it comes to maintaining his address updated all the time or instructing other users on the limitations of the service, but when we compare all the advantages of VoIP, we can consider that they are much more important than the small compromises it requires.