911 calls at risk of VoIP 'black hole'
By Nick Green
TORRANCE, Calif. — Torrance resident Richard Browning was working out at a local gym earlier this month when he saw an elderly man fall. Employees asked him to call 911 while they attended to him.
But Browning, a former police officer and current planning commissioner, was immediately put on hold. It took two minutes just to get an operator, who was based in Denver.
Then she turned out to be poorly trained, was unable to instantly identify where he was calling from and asked him questions like what ZIP code he was calling from.
As he pleaded with the woman to summon paramedics, he was incorrectly transferred to the Torrance Police Department, which promptly transferred him to the Fire Department.
Total time elapsed before he was able to summon emergency aid from the proper authorities: eight minutes.
Total time for paramedics to respond once the Fire Department was alerted: two minutes and 44 seconds.
"(Paramedics) were there quicker than it took to make the phone call," said Browning, who relayed his 911 odyssey to the manager of the gym. "They were appalled."
Turns out Browning had unknowingly stepped into something of a black hole in the nation's emergency response system, the relatively new technology known as Voice over Internet Protocol.
Essentially that amounts to making and receiving telephone calls via the Internet.
It's touted as being cheaper than regular telephone service, but VoIP, as it is known, has several drawbacks, including the inability to quickly and easily make 911 calls, as Browning discovered.
That's partly because of the inherent nature of the technology, but the problem is often compounded by inefficiencies of the VoIP provider.
The Federal Communications Commission, aware of these issues, said that the portability of VoIP - one of its selling points - means it's not always possible to tell where a telephone is geographically.
In addition, sometimes VoIP providers route 911 calls to operators not trained in emergency response, and VoIP may not work during a power outage.
"You don't know where that (VoIP) 911 call is going," Browning said. "We're faced with a serious situation where the public, in my opinion, was misinformed about where our emergency calls are going."
It's a problem more people are likely to encounter.
VoIP telephone service is growing in popularity, while traditional telephone companies are actually shedding land line customers.
As a result the FCC has imposed requirements on VoIP providers designed to deal with these issues.
For instance, VoIP providers are supposed to verify that they know a customer's actual location before signing them up for the service.
They must also ensure customers are aware of the limitations of VoIP in regard to 911 calls, although that wouldn't have helped Browning.
Denver-based Qwest, for instance, which provided the VoIP service to Browning's gym at the SouthRacquet Club, notes in its fine print that "Qwest recommends that you have an alternative way to access traditional 911 service."
Hoosh Nader, manager of the racquet club, said the company has "fixed" the problem and now should be able to automatically locate the gym if someone makes another emergency call.
Still, he was unimpressed with the company's service.
"We're pretty much to theof our contract with these guys and we will not be renewing," Nader said.
A Daily Breeze reporter was unable to get a response from Qwest.
The company's media hotline was not functioning and no representative responded to an e-mail request for comment.
Moreover, the Torrance Police Department was concerned enough about Browning's experience that it has issued a "cautionary bulletin" alerting the public to the potential drawbacks of VoIP in a "life-or-death emergency."
As for the unidentified elderly man who prompted the 911 call - he was fine, Browning said.
Copyright 2008 ProQuest Information and Learning