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EMERGENCY SERVICES

Police concerned about delays resulting from people trying to contact police using Voice over Internet Protocol phone carrier

By Jennifer O'Brien, The London Free Press

Sgt. Derek Spence works in the communications section, where 911 calls are fielded and officers dispatched, in the London police headquarters on Dundas St. Police are concerned about delays that result when people try to contact police using a Voice over Internet Protocol phone carrier. (CRAIG GLOVER/The London Free Press)

Sgt. Derek Spence works in the communications section, where 911 calls are fielded and officers dispatched, in the London police headquarters on Dundas St. Police are concerned about delays that result when people try to contact police using a Voice over Internet Protocol phone carrier. (CRAIG GLOVER/The London Free Press)

When every second counts, the only question you want to hear when you call 911 is, “What’s your emergency?”

But if you have an Internet-based phone service, the question is likely to be, “What city are you calling from?”

And with more and more people using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone carriers — through which phones aren’t tied to a physical address and service operators in one jurisdiction take 911 calls then connect callers with the local dispatchers — police are increasingly concerned about the potential for delay in getting people help they need.

“It’s concerning. You dial 911 and you expect to get police, fire or ambulance,” said London Police Const. Ken Steeves. “That’s the purpose of calling. When you are with a VoIP (service) it doesn’t come directly to us.”

That means the operator who takes your call has to figure out where you are calling from and then connect you with a local 911 call taker. The transaction should take an instant.

But what happens when there are language barriers, and when callers can’t speak or don’t know where they are? Unlike land-line calls that come to 911 dispatchers attached to street addresses, or cell phones now typically equipped with GPS locator devices, VoIPs can’t yet be tracked so quickly.

Federal regulators in Canada and the U.S. have tried to address the issue by requiring Internet-based phone providers to make sure customers register their address and update any changes of address, but people fall through the cracks.

“The onus really is on people who have VoIP telephone to always provide your provider with your address,” said Mike Shantz, general manager of Sudbury-based Northern Communications that routes 911 calls for wireline and Internet-based phone services across North America.

“In a perfect world, the carrier gives us the last known address. . . . In a perfect world, you dial 911, it comes into us and we say ‘Are you at this street?’ you say ‘Yes,’ we press the button. We stay on the line . . . and the average call time, 20 seconds,” he said.

But it’s not a perfect world. Some carriers don’t keep records of the addresses and customers don’t inform carriers of new addresses, so operators have to do some research before sending help.

“Some calls go bad, some calls are complicated,” Shantz said.

On at least two recent occasions, London 911 dispatchers answered calls from VoIP operators trying to connect callers from outside London, Steeves said.

“One was in Mississauga,” he said.

On another occasion, Steeves said, a Londoner complained it took 10 minutes before the connection was made from the VoIP operator to local dispatchers.

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What is VoIP

  • Refers to Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone carriers.
  • 911 calls go to service operators who then connect callers to local dispatchers.

Going VoIP

  • “If and when you purchase a VoIP service, the No. 1 question you should ask is ‘Is there a 911 service?’ ” said Greg Hilton of the OPP’s communications and technology support branch.
  • Then, register your address.
  • If you move, contact your VoIP with your new address.

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