Cell Phones, VoIP, and 9-1-1

The 911 system was developed during the last 25 years of the 20th century, and it was designed around land lines. Cell phones and IP phone services have given thousands of people new and better access to public safety services, but they also bring new challenges to the 911 infrastructure and to responders.

Accidental Calls

At last estimate, more than 30% of the 911 calls from wireless phones were "pocket dials." At a minimum of 1-2 minutes per call, these accidental calls take up hours of time that could be spent responding to real emergencies. Since we err on the side of sending too much help, accidental calls can also take responder resources.

What We are Doing

Central Lane Communications uses a computerized filter on all incoming cell phone calls, to limit the number of accidental calls that come through. If you call 911 on a cell phone, the auto attendant will ask you to press a key or speak into the phone. Any response at all will send the call through to the Communications Center.

This automated filter prevents over 2,200 accidental calls every month, freeing nearly 40 hours of Call Taker time to help people in need.

What You Can Do

Even with the filter in place, approximately 10% of the calls we receive are accidental. Unless we can determine that everything is OK, we have to send responders.

Consumers can assist in efforts to eliminate the accidental call problem by following these simple steps:

  • Use your keypad lock feature.
  • Refrain from programming your wireless phone to speed or automatically dial 911.

Location Challenges

"Can’t you just ping my phone?" Maybe. We’ll certainly try if we need to, but GPS location takes valuable time and isn’t always possible. We can also try to find you by triangulation if your cell phone is in contact with more than one cell tower, or by getting your approximate direction and distance from a cell tower if your cell phone is only in contact with one cell tower. If you’re in a remote location or even in a building where your phone’s GPS doesn’t work, it can be quite difficult or impossible to narrow down your phone’s location to a reasonably-sized area.

Special problems with Internet-based (VoIP) phone services

Many popular phone service providers use internet-based routing for phone calls, including T-Mobile, Comcast/Xfinity,Vonage, Clearwire, and many others. The FCC has identified several issues with using VOIP phones to access emergency services, including emergency calls sometimes being routed to the wrong 911 center if the subscriber moves or is travelling. You can read the FCC’s summary of potential VoIP issues as they relate to 911 service here.