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The 911 dilemma

Despite advances made in Enhanced 911 (E911) communications, which provides 911 call centres with the physical addresses of callers, Canada’s 911 system is failing to keep up with the pace of telephone technology.

April 4, 2011
By James Careless

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Despite advances made in Enhanced 911 (E911) communications, which provides 911 call centres with the physical addresses of callers, Canada’s 911 system is failing to keep up with the pace of telephone technology. As a result, 911 call centres and the first responders they support still have trouble correctly locating callers and struggle to pay for services to help the callers they can locate.

911_phone  
Cell phones with built-in GPS units can be tracked by 911 call centres, which can relay locations to first responders. But the system can’t keep pace with telephone technology and there’s not enough funding. 


 

According to the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association (CWTA), an Ottawa-based industry group representing Canada’s cellphone companies, 23.4 million Canadians subscribe to some form of wireless telephone service. Half of all phone connections are wireless, and 75 per cent of Canadian homes have access to a wireless phone.

Not surprisingly, this wireless trend is having an impact on 911 call centres. In Alberta, for instance, “Over 50 per cent of all calls to our 911 call centres are cellular calls,” says Chris Kearns, chair of the Alberta E911 Advisory Association, which brings together E911 managers from across the province. Kearns is also communications centre manager with the Lethbridge Fire Department.

Concerted action by the CWTA, its member companies and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has resulted in substantial progress providing locational data for wireless 911 calls.

“In line with the CRTC rules on E911, Canada’s wireless carriers now provide E911 centres with information regarding the caller’s physical location,” says CWTA communications director Marc Choma. “If the caller’s phone has a built-in GPS unit, this exact latitudinal and longitudinal data can be sent to the call centre. If not, we can still get an approximate location on the caller by triangulating their signal strength with respect to the nearest receiving tower.”

Kearns applauds the progress on wireless E911, although he notes that older wireless devices without GPS are harder to find using triangulation. But what really concerns him is the fact that Alberta doesn’t have any legislation requiring cellular companies to pay for E911 service.

“Our province doesn’t have this kind of law in place; neither does British Columbia,” Kearns says. “Now our overall call volumes are going up, and over half of the calls being from wireless handsets. But since we don’t get paid to handle those wireless calls – and more people are switching to wireless – our operating revenues are going down. It’s an impossible situation that puts more and more pressure on the system, with no relief in sight.” (In other provinces, cellular companies are required to provide support to local 911 call centres.)


The VoIP conundrum

Unlike cellphones, Voice over IP (VoIP) telephones send their signals across the Internet. In the simplest sense, they function just like any IP address-identified computer connected to the web, which means it is not necessary to provide their physical location for them to connect. Any location data that the call centres receive comes from the VoIP’s address files, not the caller’s physical location.

This is not a problem in the case of fixed VoIP users (people who have a hard-wired telephone system that happens to be connected to a VoIP carrier, rather than Bell Canada or Telus). But it is a problem with so-called nomadic VoIP users, people who move their VoIP phone to a new address without notifying their carrier of the address change, or businesspeople who take their VoIP phones from place to place as they travel.

Effectively, this state of affairs means that VoIP phones can only access basic 911 service; E911 does not work with this technology. If VoIP users don’t alert their carriers of a location change, then emergency services can end up being sent to their old address after a 911 call. Such was the case in 2008, when the family of 18-month-old Elijah Luck called for help. The family had moved to Calgary, while their VoIP carrier still had them listed as living in Mississauga, Ont. Unfortunately, by the time an ambulance was sent to the right house and got Elijah Luck to hospital, the child had died.

“The high-profile case that occurred in Calgary two years ago underscores the problem with VoIP 911,” says Brian Cornforth, fire chief with the Lethbridge Fire Department in Alberta and president of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association. “Unless the address information attached to the VoIP user’s IP address is up to date, there is no way for the dispatch centre to locate someone unable to provide voice information.”

Emergency services have been aware of the issues with VOIP since it was introduced, says Bryan Burbidge, fire chief in King Township, Ont., and the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs’s representative on the Ontario 911 advisory board.

“We advised of the potential 911 issues at the onset of VOIP back several years ago,” Burbidge said. “The very unfortunate part of this is that Nomadic users of VOIP who need to call 911 may not be aware of the differences in the address that the bill goes to the address where the user is physically located. More often than not the two addresses are different and possibly kilometers, cities, even provinces apart.”

The CRTC has looked at the issue of nomadic VoIP 911 in depth. However, in Telecom Decision CRTC 2010-387 (issued June 17, 2010), the CRTC concluded that the current proposed VoIP E911 Ci2 locational technology is just not up to the task.

“The CRTC notes that no parties indicated that Ci2 or a similar nomadic VoIP E911 service has been implemented in other countries,” says CRTC 2010-387. “The CRTC therefore considers that the proposed Ci2 solution is untested and that actual experience with respect to the feasibility and costs of implementing such a solution does not exist.”

This fact, plus the CRTC’s belief that upcoming next-generation 911 technologies “would support nomadic VoIP service by using location-aware devices to determine a subscriber’s location,” led the CRTC to endorse the VoIP 911 status quo.

“We looked at the cost and implementation time associated with Ci2, and concluded that it would not be a good decision,” says CRTC spokesperson Denis Carmel. “The next generation of 911 technology is coming, and it will be more suitable to addressing this problem.”

In the interim, “it is up to Canadian VoIP subscribers to keep their carriers apprised of their latest addresses, and for the carriers to make this easy to do via their websites,” he added.

One consolation: The CRTC’s research indicates that “the number of nomadic VoIP service subscribers declined from 161,000 in 2007 to 153,000 in 2008, and accounted for 0.8 per cent of wireline telephone service subscribers in 2008,” says decision CRTC 2010-387.

“Based on these statistics and assuming no further declines, the CRTC notes that the nomadic VoIP service subscribers who would potentially use Ci2 comprise 0.4 per cent of all 911 subscribers and two per cent of high-speed Internet subscribers.”

Time will tell if the percentage of nomadic voice users continues to decline, or reverses this course and increases again.
In the meantime, wireless use is growing and this growth is hurting 911 call centres in provinces that do not require wireless carriers to pony up cash.

“We are required to have the technology to serve wireless customers,” Cornforth says. “But no funding from wireless providers is transferred to the municipalities to support our costs. The cost and liability associated to running a call centre are extensive and those costs need to be shared with the wireless providers. Do we have the money to keep doing so? That is an entirely different question.” 



James Careless is a freelance writer based in Ottawa and a frequent contributor to Canadian Firefighter and EMS Quarterly.


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