Internet phone services could send 911 calls to wrong locations

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By Pamela Lawson

Last summer Cindy Cline, a day-shift supervisor with Jefferson County dispatch, fielded a 911 call from a woman in Istanbul. The woman had called from an Internet phone, and the service provider did not link her to the local 911 service — it routed her instead to Colorado.

“We told her she had to find a land line and call for help (there),” Cline said. “We had no way to look up (the Istanbul contact) number for her.” Fortunately, the woman just needed to log a report and was not in danger, she said.

Cline says Jeffco residents who use Internet phone technology should check to make sure their providers are linked to local emergency services — before an emergency occurs.

Voice-over-Internet-Protocol, or VoIP, makes it possible to have phone service through a personal computer over the Internet. But in some cases, a VoIP provider will rout emergency calls through its own “answering point,” which may be out of state or overseas, Cline said.

She said any Jeffco resident who uses a VoIP provider should be certain that correct personal information is listed with the local 911 center.

To test that process, a High Timber Times reporter contacted 911 in Jefferson County from two wireless Internet phone services: Comcast and T-Mobile @Home.

The data that appeared on the dispatch computer screen from the Comcast Internet phone had the necessary information in the correct fields: the reporter’s home phone number listed first, followed by name and home address.

For the new @Home Internet service from T-Mobile, the phone number listed in the first field was actually the number of a local cell tower. In the resident slot, there was no personal name but rather the words “T-mobile@Home customer.” The home address was listed correctly.

“I would think that was the address of a tower site,” Cline said. “We would get right on it ee we would dispatch ee but the way this looks, it looks like a tower site.”

That situation could cause confusion — and cost precious seconds — during an emergency.

A field farther down on the screen contained the reporter’s home phone number, but dispatchers are trained to look at the top number first — which could slow progress if the phone call were disconnected.

In both the test situations, dispatch would be able to reach the homeowner. But the information in the first example was much easier to follow.

Jeffco sheriff’s spokeswoman Jacki Kelley confirmed there is a problem.

“Some cable services, such as Vonage, are not interfaced with the county’s 911 service,” Kelley said. “Many are working to interface with 911, but many have not and will not,” she said, referencing a document her agency has received on the matter.

County residents who are uncertain about whether a digital VoIP provider has provided the necessary data to the local 911 dispatch center can call 911 and check the accuracy of their personal information.

Her office cannot change the personal data in its system provided by digital service providers, but if there is a problem, residents can contact their phone service about the discrepancy.

Residents who use an analog or hard-wired telephone may also call and verify data, Cline said. Her office occasionally discovers discrepancies in the analog system too, and those can be brought to the attention of her database manager, she said.

Here’s how to contact Cline’s office: Call 911 and tell dispatch that you are calling to verify your personal contact information in the system.

The best time to call is between 9 and 11 a.m., Cline said, or after 9 p.m., when the office is less likely to be busy. Early risers can call around 4 or 5 a.m. (if you are put on hold, do not hang up — wait for the operator to return). Dispatch will ask you to identify your phone number, name and address, and will say if the information is listed correctly or incorrectly, Cline said.