911: From Where's the Fire to Wherever You Are

By Brian Trampler, Senior Product and Strategy Manager, Black Box

When you think about it, does your average user (or typical knowledge worker) understand how complex 911 — and by extension E911 — are? Of course not. Do they expect it to work every time? Of course they do. Assuring 911 compliance is a thankless job, but someone has to do it, most likely you. Nevertheless, 911 is a vital element in any complete UCaaS, PBX, or MLTS rollout, and needs to be considered from many different angles. To do this effectively, it may be helpful to look at the history of 911, and how each element of what is in place today and the legislation that governs its use interact with your environment.

911 – How Did It Start

The first known use of a national emergency telephone number began in the United Kingdom in 1937–1938 using the number 999, which is still in use today. In North America, it was first used in Winnipeg, Canada in 1959, initially using the same code as the U.K. For ease of use, that was changed to 911 when legislation passed in the United States in 1967.

In the U.S., before 1967, there was no national standard for a single emergency number. A decade earlier, in 1957, the National Association of Fire Chiefs1 recommended that a single, nationwide number be established for reporting fires. This eventually led to the recommendation of an easily remembered number that could be used for any type of emergency. The FCC met with AT&T and together they came up with 911. Legislation was subsequently passed, and a national emergency number was established. The complete rollout of a nationwide emergency service took many years, but today, 99% of the U.S. is able to call 911.

How Does 911 Find Me

Good question. If 911 is a national number, how does a local responder find you?

The first, but not the last, acronym to remember is PSAP. This can stand for either Public Safety Access Point or Public Safety Answering Point. It essentially defines the geographic location within a specific area where an emergency call must be routed. In the U.S., that documentation is gathered through the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the U.S. alone, there are almost 9,000 PSAPs defined in the FCC database. This list can change as PSAPs are combined, separated into smaller regions, or designated as primary or secondary.

911 Landline Calls (They Still Exist)

When you call 911, your location information is used to make certain that the call gets to the right police, fire, or dispatch station as quickly as possible. On a landline, (how many of us have those today?) the address associated with the number you are calling from is communicated through the phone line as part of the data from the phone company in your area. That information generates the Automatic Location Identification (ALI) by referencing your Automatic Number Information (ANI).

If there is a failure in the location information getting to the PSAP, general emergency services are the fallback. In this situation, the operator or person answering the phone has to rely on the 911 caller (in an unknown situation or duress) to provide location information. Once an address is given, the general emergency service passes the call to the correct PSAP. All of this happens in seconds regardless of who receives the call.

E911 (Enhanced, Not Electronic)

E911 (Enhanced 911) is the service applied to non-land-based lines, mobile phones, or phones that use VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol). It could be considered electronic in terms of how it's used and embedded GPSs in smart phones, but that's just coincidence. E911 provides enhanced location information, such as what floor a caller is on or even what conference room on that floor the caller is in. It also includes the use of multiple devices to make 911 calls, which could be the softphone on your laptop or desktop, or your cellular device.

When you set up your laptop as a softphone, either your company IT Administrator used your physical address to set up your device, or you were asked to enter in your location information before they gave you a DID (Direct inward Dial) number. This helps the right information (as discussed previously) get to the right PSAP, who can then dispatch as needed. When you use your cell phone, a specific service called Radio Resource Location Services Protocol (RRLP) is utilized. This information directs your call to the correct PSAP and can be provided by the cell phone tower triangulation (called radiolocation), or can use GPS. By knowing your location between two to three towers of a provider's cellular network or by sending along GPS coordinates, they can then provide a general location to the dispatch when needed. There are regulations as to how close these services should place your location via these systems.

But there is more to consider. There are some very specific regulations and more recent changes to 911/E911 rules that make sure you can 1) get a call out, and 2) transmit your location information with as much detail as possible.

Kari's Law

Imagine trying to dial 911, but not knowing you had to dial an extension or prefix, such as 9, to reach an outside line. Unfortunately, this led to a tragic situation and to the establishment of Kari's Law. In 2018, a law was passed that made sure all MLTS (Multi-Line Telephone Systems) would pass 911 calls through without dialing an extension. This assures you that any fixed (or soft) phone you grab in any building can reach emergency services even if there is a standard prefix normally used to dial an outside line. Alongside this requirement, the owner of the phone system must also be notified that a 911 call has been placed, and provide location information to the phone system administrator.


Again, imagine dialing 911 when you are on the 20th floor of a 50 story (or higher) building. If only the address was passed along to the PSAP, how would first responders find you? The address 100 Main Street is a lot different than 100 Main St, 20th floor, northeast corner, office 2001.

Laws like RAY BAUM'S Act, (yes all caps, that's not a mistake) that require exact location information to be passed through to the PSAP (and the prior referenced Kari's Law) are the result of a failure at some point in the 911 system. They are also why it is so important that we have a regulating body like the FCC that works with incumbent Local Exchange Carriers (ILECs), private companies that manage the PSAP database, to put standards of communication in place.

The Importance of ILECs

I happened to work for an incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) in the past and, let me tell you, the operations centers they manage are incredibly sophisticated and important. This is where is another 911 capability comes into play. What if the PSAP in your area has an emergency that shuts down their access to receive calls? Earlier, I mentioned secondary PSAP locations. Some of these 911 services can contract with an ILEC to put a backup 911 capability in place. Essentially, a 911 call comes in, but the PSAP that it normally would be routed to is gone (for any number of reasons). That user still needs help, so the contracted service picks up the call, and knows which PSAP it should have normally reached. They then act as the 911 operator, gathering the same information that would usually be gathered locally, and get that information to the correct authority within the correct municipality, making sure your 911 calls get where they need to be.

911 Compliance Questions

We covered a lot of ground (and acronyms) here. If your eyes started to glaze over after the first few, I totally understand. 911 regulations and compliance and the systems that deliver the technology (PBX, MLTS, UCaaS, PSAP, ILECs and more) can be overwhelming. While the regulations may seem complicated, you have help. Some newer unified communications and collaboration systems can be quickly and easily programmed by one of our technicians to become compliant with Kari's Law. However, many legacy solutions cannot. Black Box can help you determine what your best options are and what the next steps are to ensure your organization is compliant with Kari's Law and Ray Baum's act. You can contact us and one of our technical advisors will get back to you.

For more information about what Kari's Law is and 911 compliance regulations surrounding soft/mobile phones, see these blogs: Kari's Law and Ray Baum's Act Compliance Information and E-9-1-1 Compliance: A Hard Deadline for Softphones.

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1 https://www.nena.org/page/911overviewfacts

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