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The Top Five Things You Need to Know About E911

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When emergencies happen, our first instinct is often to call 911. In the U.S., this has long been a universal service – at least in our homes. Today, that service is known as E911, and whether you know that or not, most people don’t give much thought as to how it works. This is particularly problematic for businesses since most environments do not fully or properly support E911. Not only are the technologies and solutions largely inadequate, but in most states, E911 support for businesses is not mandatory.

 

You can choose to think of E911 as being optional, but that position is getting harder to defend in light of how the workplace is changing, along with the wider range of situations where emergencies can arise for your employees. As that gap widens, the potential liability exposure becomes greater, making E911 simply a good business decision. The safety of your employees may be paramount, but you also have an obligation to protect the business itself.

In that context, this guide has been prepared, and our intention is to draw from industry-based research and distill the current state of business E911 for decision-makers. We have identified five need-to-know realities that all businesses must address, and believe this will provide a solid basis for you to determine a go-forward plan for E911 in 2015.

 

Five Need-to-Knows About E911

After terminating a contract with your existing service, the next question probably will be what should you look for in a VoIP phone system vendor? A proper analysis will require a longer document, but for now, let’s simply touch on five key checklist items to get you grounded.

1. Business use is more complicated than at home

Before E911, there was 911, the original emergency response service. During the 1960s, 911 matured into a universal solution in the U.S. that connected all subscribers to first responders simply by dialing those three digits. Our world was simpler then, but given the available technology, 911 was a breakthrough for saving lives, and the service still exists in its basic form today.

So long as you were connected to the PSTN, 911 provided a centralized resource to connect with a live operator – a dispatcher actually – stationed at a local PSAP – public service access point. From there, emergency calls would be routed based on need and the caller’s physical location. The former was determined by speaking with you on the phone and the latter by a reverse lookup in the telco’s subscriber database that matched phone numbers with billing addresses.

This iteration of 911 worked quite well, since most everyone was a customer of the phone company, and there was typically just one line per household. There were no mobile phones or alternatives to incumbents for telephony, and of course the Internet was a few decades away still.

While 911 was devised for residential use, emergencies also occurred in the workplace, and that’s why this guide has been written. Workers were far more desk-bound back then, and switched telephony systems were not the norm, so 911 was also reasonably effective in these cases as well. Furthermore, most people kept to a 9-5 schedule, and the division between work and family time was very clear.

As such, 911 could effectively serve the workplace, at least until the rise of switched telephony systems, primarily in the form of a PBX. Along the way, 911 evolved into E911, or Enhanced 911. The main advance was that the caller’s location could be determined automatically based on their phone number, making it faster to route the call from the PSAP to the right team of first responders.

Despite this improvement, the effectiveness of E911 was compromised in business settings that had a switched phone system. There are many sound reasons why a PBX assigns extensions to employees instead of direct lines, but this creates challenges for the PSAP in being able to determine the caller’s physical location.

In many cases, they only know the default location of the PBX system itself, but if your extension is based elsewhere at a branch office, first responders will not know how to find you. Even if you’re in the same location as the PBX, the phone system may not be able to provide enough granular detail to the PSAP to tell them where in the building you’re actually located.

This is just a high level explanation of the complexity posed by a business environment, and things become even more difficult with VoIP. As you may know, VoIP is what’s known as a “nomadic” technology in that its usage is determined by access to a data network rather than the physical location associated with the phone number.

Access to VoIP is in fact, determined by the IP address associated with the endpoint, which could be the desk phone, but also a cordless phone, a PC or even a mobile device. In this context, VoIP can be used almost anywhere, further compounding the challenge of having people in need making E911 calls from extensions instead of 10 digit phone numbers.

While all of the above is true, technologies do exist to address these issues. They may not map out to be as effective as 911 was in a legacy residential environment, but are certainly good enough to serve the needs of today’s workplace. While this may sound promising, the reality is that most PBX or IP PBX systems are not E911 compliant, and on top of that, this compliance is not even required in most U.S. states. E911 may be mandated as a universal service in the home, but it remains largely voluntary for businesses and VoIP vendors.

Before continuing, as a side note, if you elect to explore this further to clarify your obligations to support E911, you’ll likely come across a new acronym – MLTS. This stands for multi-line telephone system, and is the parlance used in E911 circles when referring to switched systems such as a PBX.

2. E911 is not just for landlines

While the above conditions create challenges for E911 in the workplace, they can all be addressed with the right solutions. Solving these, however, is really just the beginning of the story. E911 is firmly rooted in the world of residential landline telephony, and for business, it’s a handful just to consider the impact of VoIP and multi-line telephony.

However, once you’ve made sense of that, things really get interesting when mobility is factored in. Aside from the Internet, mobility is another huge innovation that was not considered in the early days of 911. Of course, if E911 was being invented now, it would look very different, and would be much more mobile-centric. In fact, major changes are coming to E911, and that will be covered later in this section.

Coming back to mobility however, there’s just one thing you need to know – over 70 percent of E911 calls are made this way now. Without mobile integration, you don’t have an effective E911 solution, even if you’re doing so on a voluntary basis. 

E911 is very much built around the physical location of the caller in need, and nothing has a greater bearing on this than mobility. Before we had cellular phones, E911 calls were landline-based, but in some cases, the call was being made by someone other than the party in need - who may or may not be in the same location. In other words, the service works as intended only when the person in need and phone number are in close proximity.

With mobility, for the first time, the caller in need could almost always be placing the call, regardless of location, even if they are in motion. The landline aspect of E911 remains the anchor, but more people use mobility now than landlines, and increasingly only mobility. While businesses continue to use desk phones, over time they will be supplanted and even replaced completely by other telephony options, with mobility being the mode of choice.

On that basis alone, it’s vital you understand how mobility impacts E911. Aside from the fact that mobility is becoming the dominant and preferred mode of telephony, it enables other modes beyond voice. To this point, the E911 discussion has been solely about voice, mainly because its origins are based on landline telephony.

This is important to note for two reasons. First, at that time, telephony was the only real-time or near real-time mode widely available for two-way communication. Not only is voice the best way to relay life-and-death information, but is also the best way to communicate when time is of the essence. Second, the PSTN was really the only network capable of providing both universal access to PSAPs, as well as the critical location data for the caller in need.

These are not trivial things, and it’s easy to take E911 for granted with today’s technologies. With that said, wireless networks and endpoints create new possibilities that shift the entire E911 model to a higher level. Aside from voice, smartphones and tablets can support video, file sharing, and text-based modes, such as IM, messaging and email.

No longer does the E911 model need to be solely voice-based. Mobile voice certainly opens up E911 accessibility, but these other modes enable a richer environment. Not only can people in distress use mobility in a wider range of situations, but first responders can be armed with more precise information about the caller’s location as well as their state of need. There’s more to consider for mobility to support E911 for business, and this will be addressed by the remaining factors in this section.

3. Regulatory compliance evolving and not standardized

To whatever extent you wish to support E911, it’s important to understand how the business environment differs from the residential market. E911 is largely a universal service for the latter, and has long had regulatory support in the U.S. from the FCC – Federal Communications Commission. When VoIP came to market, this posed fundamental regulatory challenges due to its nomadic nature.

Early on, most VoIP usage was strictly Web-based and bypassed the PSTN altogether. Free services like Skype flourished in this environment, mainly because they did not have to incur the costs to integrate with the PSTN, and by extension offer E911 for their users. Since these were Web-to-Web calls, with no possibility of determining a caller’s physical location, VoIP was largely exempted from E911 regulations.

This changed in 2005, by which time, the base of paid VoIP subscribers was large enough whereby this exemption was becoming problematic. Well-documented cases emerged where VoIP subscribers had fatal outcomes because they assumed their phone service was E911-compatible. Since that time, any VoIP service that “interconnects” with the PSTN to originate/terminate calls must support E911.

While this requirement has held fast in the residential sector, things are less certain for businesses. At the most basic level, the definition of a business entity is much broader and more complex than a household. Single site operations are fairly straightforward, especially where everyone is in one space and on one floor. The situation gets more challenging with a multi-site operation tied together by a single switched phone system. Some businesses with older technology have a dedicated phone system for each site, but that’s the exception, not the rule.

Getting beyond SOHO and micro-SMB operations, complexity increases with campuses and distributed sites with multiple floors. Workspaces can be spread out, such as in industrial environments, or quite dense, such in downtown office towers. To varying degrees, first responders will have access to floor plans, which may be needed to locate people in need, especially those unable to communicate after placing the E911 call. This becomes important in situations where the phone system cannot provide enough granular information to the PSAP about the caller’s exact location. As such, whether you’re based in an urban or rural setting, these factors impact the efficacy of first responders trying to do their jobs.

In addition to these basic physical realities, another issue is the limited ability of switched phone systems – MLTS – to properly support E911 in their current state. This is less of an issue with new systems, but for most of the installed base, E911 support is not a strong suit. A key reason for this is that unlike residential E911, support for businesses is not universally mandated. At present, only 19 states have some form of legislation in place requiring MLTS E911 support: AL, AK, CO, CT, FL, IL, KY, LA, ME, MA, MI, MN, MS, NH, TN, TX, VT, VA, and WA. A few other states have pending legislation, but clearly, the U.S. has a long way to go for nation-wide E911 compliance among businesses.

The reasons behind this are complex and political, and would require analysis beyond the scope of this guide. In short, however, cost is a major deterrent, as businesses would have to invest in upgrades to make their phone systems E911 compliant – or replace them altogether with newer systems. Compounding this would be the impact on service providers, especially those who have migrated their business customers over to SIP trunking. E911 compliance requires PSTN connectivity, and could require businesses to bear new costs with their carriers in order to have the proper trunking infrastructure.

4. NG911 is coming

At this point, you may be wondering if E911 will ever overcome all of these hurdles. Whether you want to be proactive and do the right thing, or take your chances and wait until the law requires you to do so, the business market moves slowly. Aside from the need for businesses to make changes to support E911, the same applies to telephony vendors and service providers. Each has a role to play, and each will move at a different pace. As such, you’ll need both patience and perseverance if just starting out along this path.

Having said that, no matter how noble your efforts, E911 itself is going through fundamental changes. There’s a good chance that by the time you’ve lined up all your ducks, the world will have shifted from E911 to NG911 – next generation 911.

As the name implies, NG911 greatly broadens what’s possible, both for callers in need and first responders. While E911 has remained fairly static for some time – largely due to the limitation of the underlying technologies – NG911 is very new, and will evolve over time. This means you shouldn’t hold off when NG911 solutions start appearing on your radar – even early iterations will be a big step forward from E911.

The basic idea here is that NG911 is designed for today’s technologies, and is similar to the change going on in telephony where businesses are shifting from legacy service to VoIP. Like legacy telephony, E911 was built entirely around voice, and is supported by a network that extends very little intelligence out to the end user and their devices.

There’s a critical difference here, since with E911, the service is tied to telephony and PSTN. This means that all forms of contact are voice calls, with the only endpoint being a dumb handset. Since NG911 is built around the world of data and multimedia, it is freed from the baggage of legacy technology, and speaks to the tools widely used in the workplace.

In this world, 911 service is compatible with whatever mode that works best both for the caller in need and the situation at hand. Aside from supporting either fixed or mobile settings, NG911 is designed for all modes – voice, text, chat and video – running over an IP network. Not only that, but files can be sent during the course of a call, such as photos or floor plans. To illustrate, here are some examples of how NG911 goes well beyond E911:

• An employee is attending to a distressed co-worker who cannot speak, but isn’t sure how to describe the situation. Instead, photos or even live video can be shared with the PSAP to help them determine the best course  of action.

• Employee is in transit between office locations, needs help, but cannot get cell phone reception. Instead, text is used to communicate with the PSAP.

• A robbery is in progress, and an employee uses the touchscreen on their tablet to silently alert the PSAP.

• Intelligent sensors throughout the operation can automatically alert the PSAP based on pre-determined settings for emergency situations, such as fire, flooding, earthquakes, unauthorized usage or intrusion, etc.

5. E911 can create liability issues 

This final need-to-know does not require much explanation, but is just as important as everything else discussed herein. So far, this guide has focused on the technology; both what you need for E911 in your business, and how that must tie into the technology used by the PSAP to provide the service. That alone requires a lot of attention from IT, but also executive management, since they need to support any investment required to make your business E911- compatible.

While it’s relatively easy to attach costs and resources to E911 upgrades, there’s a bigger picture that will be harder to budget for. When E911 works as intended, lives are saved and assets are preserved. However, E911 isn’t a perfect solution and nor is it the only solution. Not only is it susceptible to human error, but first responders do not bear all the responsibility when emergencies arise.

As a business, you have an obligation to protect the welfare of your employees, and that’s getting harder to do with so much mobility and the always-on nature of our digital lifestyles. Drawing the line between working and not working can be a real challenge, especially when it comes to determining where that obligation begins and ends with them.

In short, to fully understand what E911 means to your business, you have to view it as a potential liability issue. If you’re supporting E911 with legacy technology, your ability to respond properly will be compromised. As noted earlier, many PBXs have limited or no E911 support, and if that leads to a botched E911 event, you may be held liable for not providing adequate access to these services.

Regardless of the E911 regulatory climate in your state – or states for larger businesses – you can mitigate the risk posed by your existing telephony infrastructure with some basic, non-technical approaches. Technology makes E911 possible, but common sense and having a plan are the best ways to prepare for emergencies.

In this regard, you should educate employees with E911 workshops, along with clearly written manuals or instructions for what to do. They also need to understand the conditions under which E911 will work, and those that will not.

Unless fully explained, it is not a stretch to say that many employees simply assume E911 works for any form of telephony, such as mobility or VoIP from home. Taking that a step further, you may even consider having employees do a regular E911 review where they sign-off to indicate their understanding of these things. If you don’t take these precautions, you expose the business to unnecessary risk when emergencies arise.

Conclusion

E911 in its present state can be very effective when dealing with emergencies, although today’s technologies are creating major challenges. Despite that, the service works quite well in our homes, but the business environment is far more complex. Just because E911 is not universally mandated for businesses doesn’t mean you can ignore it and get by with outdated technology. In time, all businesses will need to support E911, and as NG911 evolves to take its place, the requirements could prove very daunting. Aside from that, businesses must also consider the potential liability that could come from not having any E911 support or simply an inadequate solution.

When taken together, these realities point to the need for businesses to update their knowledge of E911. However you look at this today, keep in mind that changes in communications technology have far outpaced what E911 is able to support, and regulations are also changing to make this a requirement for all businesses. The U.S. currently lacks a national E911 standard, but that should not diminish the need to take a more serious approach here.

There are details you need to explore beyond this guide, both around the underlying technologies to support E911, as well as the state-level regulatory requirements. Once you have that, you’ll be in a better position to assess purpose built E911 solutions, along with the suitability of your phone system, especially if you end up planning ahead for NG911.

Before you can get there, though, you need a foundation, and that is the purpose of this guide. These five considerations are the basis for any successful E911 solution, and by passing on the learning from our industry research, we hope this allows you to make decisions based on your choices, not someone else’s.

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