Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Testing E911 in Montgomery County MD

The following incidents took place over several days so but it's simpler to read them together:

Feb 1, 2005

My VoIP provider advertises E911 as part of the service, but I've been wondering exactly what E911 means. I've read of instances of VoIP going to the wrong PSAP (Public Service Access Point), where traditional phones send their 911 calls. And I've read that some VoIP phones go to the correct PSAP but to a different phone number to which you have to say "this is an emergency" after which they will take a message and manually give it to the 911 operator.

With this in mind, I contacted my local government (MCMD) and was sent to Battalion Chief Michael Prete who encouraged me to test my phone service (SunRocket). He said that no prior arrangements were necessary and to call any time of day or night: "Just make sure that the first thing out of your mouth is 'I am testing ...'"

So I called 911, identified my reason for calling, gave my address - and the 911 operator told me:
  • yes, my call went to the correct 911 center
  • yes, my number was answered by the very same person(s) answering landline-911 calls
  • no, my line did not identify the address
So the only difference is that I have to give my address when I dial 911.

As an aside, the 911 operator was very pleasant once I identified my purpose for the call. (Of course, she might not be so pleasant if 100 people call to test tonight.)

I friend of mine who uses SunRocket but from Prince William County, VA just told me that his E911 delivers the address and he recommended I contact SR. So I sent email to SR telling them the results of my test and asking if they could make sure my address is delivered via ALI.

30 minutes after sending my email to SunRocket, I got a call from an assistant of Joyce - one of the founders. (I had corresponded with Joyce a while back with some issues so I guess I'm on a short list.) She started out the conversation asking me how the service was and, of course, I mentioned that I had just sent email to SR about 911.

She said that SunRocket is supposed to deliver address information throughout the DC-MD-VA metro area and she would certainly notify the appropriate people to get it corrected. But that wasn't her reason for calling. She was looking for customers to speak with a reporter who was doing a story on them. Evidentally, they're not afraid to have customers speak out that have worked through problems with them.

A few hours later ... I received email from SR - they've tracked the problem (lack of address) to their provider of PSTN service - which is required to pass addresses on but evidentally wasn't doing it.

SunRocket says that their provider has opened a ticket for "further research and resolution" and that they (SR) are going to monitor it closely.

Feb 4, 2005

While fiddling around, I looked in my online outgoing call log and found that when I dialed 911, it appeared as 200-200-2003. That is, the area code was 200. I did some googling and found that area codes with equal 2nd and 3rd digits are reserved codes for purposes "where ease of remembering the number is important."

So it's probably just the way the underlying switching network maps 911 to the actual number of the PSAP.

Feb 8, 2005

Today, SunRocket told me that their provider has fixed the problem and asked me to try testing 911 again. I did and I'm pleased to report that:
  • my call went to the correct 911 center for my address
  • my call was answered by the very same person answering landline-911 calls
  • my call included my address which the dispatcher could see immediately

But this should be a cautionary tale: My provider had no idea 911 service wasn't working properly until I complained. And I never would have thought to test it until I started talking to others. (Never did I test my old POTS service.) In further communication with my VoIP provider, they observed that they do not support E911 throughout the US - it's an availability issue - but it is supported in the DC-MD-VA metro area. On the other hand, some VoIP providers don't support E911 at all, no matter where you may be in the US. So you should certainly keep this in mind when choosing a VoIP provider.

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