Enhanced 911 for Emergency Calling

A smartphone sitting on a car dashboard


E911 stands for Enhanced 911. It is an enhanced version of the 911 emergency service and is provided by conventional as well as Internet telephony service providers. When you use this service, your personal information, like name and address, are automatically given to your local dispatch center or Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP). A PSAP is the center or operator that handles information coming from an emergency call and is, therefore, the ultimate destination of a 911 call. 

E911 and Location 

Enhanced 911 has one pursuit: location. When someone calls for an emergency response, the first thing people at the PSAP need to know before being able to do anything is where they are, and exactly. You cannot afford to be approximate and even less to be wrong about the location.

In the old days, when people were using only landline telephone services, locating the call was only as complicated as looking up the address where the 'fixed' line telephone was installed. This normally linked to a house or an office. Things started becoming complex when mobile and wireless calls became widespread. Locating someone who made an emergency call from their mobile phone became a complex challenge. 911 service had to be enhanced to cope with this, hence E911. 

Emergency calls from a mobile phone can be located using the cellular network, which splits the whole geographical location into bee-hive like cells that are covered and delimited using adjacent communication poles. However, this method only allows authorities to locate the call within a perimeter of several hundred meters. More enhanced technology is required. There is now a database system that does something like a reverse phone lookup, looking to attach the phone number to an address.  

Now with the advent of VoIP calling services, things have become even more complex. VoIP utilizes the Internet for the most part of the call's circuit. Most VoIP calls use the Internet exclusively, and on the Internet, it is complicated to know exactly where the call comes from. PSAPs often end up getting the address of the service provider, based on the 'proxy' phone number that they provide to VoIP users. This is only a vague approximation. 

VoIP, E911 and FCC Regulations

You often see in the specifications or disclaimers of VoIP services that they do not offer emergency 911 calling, or, for those which do offer, that it should not be considered reliable. The FCC had imposed upon VoIP companies to provide emergency calling in the early days of VoIP, but that seriously hampered the evolution of VoIP technology on the market. The FCC then relaxed the imposition to allow it to thrive, which it did. The imposition, though quite lenient, is now only on those services that link VoIP calls to the PSTN and cellular services. You should not expect to have reliable, if any, E911 with VoIP services that work only on the Internet, such as WhatsApp calling. 

What You Can Do

You have nothing more to do for E911, just dial 911. The enhancement is on the part of the authorities. 

What you should do if you want E911 to be as reliable as possible is to give a permanent address along with your name. You have to be as precise as possible, and be prompt with notifying about changes. If you change address, make sure you update it with your provider. If you use VoIP service as​a replacement for your landline service, do not hesitate to talk to your service provider about the extent to which you can rely on their E911 service and to explore all possibilities.