VoIP And 911 – Mix Up Causes Death Of Toddler

Despite being a nerd and having a love for technology, I’ve never been a fan of VoIP technology. Despite being much cheaper than traditional landline service, 911 services don’t work the same way as traditional landlines. Any 911 call that a VoIP caller makes first have to go to to the provider’s call center and then to the local 911 call center. All of that assumes that you’re at the location that the provider thinks you’re at (As VoIP lines could in theory be anywhere in the world. Exhibit A: The V Phone From Vonage). Landlines just go straight to your local 911 call center and they can trace the exact location that you’re calling from.

This fear about 911 services was sadly validated this week with the death of a toddler in Calgary, Alberta. In a nutshell, the family called 911 when the toddler stopped breathing. The VoIP provider Comwave thought that the family was still living in Mississauga, Ontario and dispatched EMS to their old address in Mississauga (this despite the fact that the provider had their current address in their billing system). 30 minutes had elapsed before the family went to a neighbors house to dial 911 from their phone. The ambulance arrived six minutes later and toddler was rushed to hospital, but was dead on arrival.

The CRTC has started an investigation into this matter. Not only that, emergency services personnel in Toronto have commented on the limitations on VoIP. Wendy Drummond of the Toronto Police Service said:

“When you use the VoIP system, they go with the subscriber’s last information. When you call 911 on a land line, it will tell you in fact where that call is being placed from,” Drummond said. Moreover, when the Internet is down, certain VoIP services do not allow users access to the phone, meaning in an emergency, they cannot call 911.”

I had completely forgotten about the fact that a power failure or some loss of Internet access leaves you unable to use your phone as well. That’s not good.

The VoIP provider that the family was using was Comwave (who for those of you on the ball, is the same company that owns the rights to the word “iPhone” in Canada as that is the name of their VoIP service) who offers “Comwave Enhanced 911” service. What is that exactly? From the company’s FAQ:

“Comwave 911 works through a third party that answers your emergency calls and then dispatches the authorities. Comwave is the only company to provide emergency responders with key information about critical medical history. We encourage you to log on-line to the iPhone web portal to complete the 911 registration. There you will also be able to confidentially list medical information about people in your household so that in the event of an emergency the authorities will have critical information.”

I’m not sure if the family used this feature, but even if they did it sounds like something even more basic happened. The family’s current address in the companies billing system, but whatever system that they use for 911 services wasn’t updated. That my friends is life threating as this case illustrates.

I also went looking for any warnings in terms of power failures and the limitations of 911 services when used with VoIP on the Comwave website, but I couldn’t find any. Perhaps I’m not looking in the right place, but I tried for half an hour and came up empty. At least Vonage by makes their 911 info easy to find (it took 30 seconds of searching to find it) and it’s very clear:

“With Vonage’s 9-1-1 service, your call is sent to a national emergency call centre. The call centre operator will confirm your location information and then transfer your 9-1-1 call to the emergency response centre nearest your location. You should be prepared to confirm your address and call-back number with the operator. If you use a WiFi, Vonage V-Phone or SoftPhone, your 9-1-1 calls will be routed to the national emergency response centre; however, emergency personnel do not receive your phone number or physical location information. Do not hang up unless told directly to do so and if disconnected, you should dial 9-1-1 again.”

I found the above text at this page which seems to be at the bottom of most of Vonage’s pages on their website if you look for “911.” There’s a second page that gives you more detail on their 911 service that actually mentions power failures. At least with this info I know what I’m getting into. Which is one step above Comwave IMHO.

So, are VoIP services bad? No. I think that if you want to use one as a SECONDARY line to save money on long distance bills, that’s fine. But I think as this case illustrates, using one as your primary line is likely a bad idea.

Oh, what does Comwave have to say about this? I found this comment from Yuval Barzakay who runs Comwave (via Canoe):

“To me, it doesn’t matter who’s at fault, we want to ensure this never happens again.”

Fair enough, but he also said this:

“In my home I have my cellphone and I have a land line,”

That says to me that this technology isn’t ready for prime time.

UPDATE: There’s a press release (warning PDF) on the Toronto Police website warning people about VoIP.

One Response to “VoIP And 911 – Mix Up Causes Death Of Toddler”

  1. Wow! What a website. You have a real knack for making a blog readable and easy on the eyes. Some sites look like train wrecks, but not this site – it’s a pleasure to read. I find Voice over IP very interesting. I have learned a lot in implementing a small VoIP network at home, and am thinking of starting VoIP business in my area. There are a number of small businesses in my region that would benefit from it greatly.

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