911 call misrouted by 2,500 miles

How did a 911 call from Anchorage, Alaska, end up 2,500 miles away in a call center in Ontario? The answer may surprise you, and it is not an uncommon problem.

911 call misrouted by 2,500 miles
Credit: Shutterstock

An urgent call to 911 from the front desk of an Anchorage, Alaska, hotel was routed to Ontario. Local police authorities blamed it on VoIP telephony services.

While VoIP does play a role in the issue, the core problem stems from improper provisioning of the phone service and is something that has happened before, when calls to 911 were routed to Northern 911, an Ontario company.

This specialized, privately operated 911 center functions as a "PSAP of last resort," taking calls meant for 911 that otherwise cannot be routed correctly, intercepting them manually. After determining the location of the incident, calls are then extended over trunks to administrative lines.

While calls ultimately get to where a person can answer them, significant delays can be experienced, which is what happened when an eighth-grade student in Delano, California, collapsed during gym class. Northern 911 transferred the call to Delano Police, but the Kern County Fire Department was the agency responsible for sending the ambulance. Unfortunately, that student died before first responders made it to the scene.

What are these 911 centers of last resort?

These unique 911 centers provide manual 911 coverage when VoIP-based telephony networks are unable to route a 911 call. In the case of the Anchorage, Alaska, call, the reason for the routing failure was not immediately known. However, based on facts, one can make several assumptions. With the 911 network routing traffic based on Caller ID, quite often failures are attributable to incorrect programming in the originating Multi-Line Telephone System (MLTS).

The other primary reason for routing failures is when the MLTS installer fails to provision the routing tables in the VoIP network. These incidents serve as a stark reminder that E911 cannot be taken for granted, especially when about an MLTS.

KTUU TV reporter Mallory Peebles reported that the front desk clerk of a Best Western Hotel in Anchorage, Alaska, made a 911 call for a medical emergency. A dispatcher answered that call, but then inexplicably placed the hotel on hold for a period. Having concern for the person needing help, but not wanting to hang up, the hotel clerk summoned a passerby to place another call to 911 from their cell phone.

This time, officers quickly arrived on the scene, only to discover the front desk clerk still on hold with who he thought was the local 911 center. Police officers found the call that was on hold had somehow gone to Ontario and was answered by operators at Northern 911, nearly 2,500 miles away.

911 call misrouted by 2500 miles (C) 2016 Google, Inc.

VoIP 911 calls from Anchorage Alaska sent to a 911 call center 2,500 miles away in Ontario 

Apparently, the problem doesn’t end there. Anchorage Police reports that a similar situation also occurred at the local Clarion Hotel. How does a call to 911 ended up at an emergency center that is nearly 2,500 miles away? More important, what happens to it once it gets there? 

The culprit behind this is a VoIP-based Internet Telephone 911 service that is often not well understood. The service is commonly referred to as Hosted 911, or a VoIP Positioning Center (VPC) Service. 

Why we need VPC 911 providers

The 911 network is very localized and counts on the existence of local trunks into the nearly 6,000 individual 911 centers. That way 911 can be routed to the center that is local to the physical trunk used to place the call.

The mobility offered by many modern telecommunications platforms can create problems for E911. Networks can no longer rely on yesterday’s legacy protocols used to report location, or even reach the proper 911 Public Safety Answer Point (PSAP) as SIP trunks allow customers to flatten and consolidate. So, the logical question becomes, "How can E911 work?" 

VPC - VoIP Positioning Center Architecture Mark J. Fletcher, ENP

Hosted E911 in a flattened data-center VoIP model

The VPC was developed to solve this problem. VPCs provide what's commonly referred to as an umbrella network that can sit on top of the regionalized 911 system networks and provide a national footprint. VoIP providers can use the VPCs to reach nearly any local 911 service area without having to manage network connectivity to all 6,000 PSAPs in the country. 911 traffic in the VPC network is handed off to the VPC carrier for call handling.

In turn, the VPC maintains a national database of PSAP routing logic applied to the call in near real time. The VPC is a quick and easy fix and is popular in any environment where 911 complexity is perceived to be present. Unfortunately, IT administrators rarely understand the network behind the VPC and the potential baggage that comes along with the solution.

A common term used in IT is "garbage in, garbage out," and the same is true with hosted 911. While it is relatively easy to send any call into the hosted E911 environment, the national database of numbers is still a requirement and must be correct for the call to complete. If a call is presented but the network cannot route the call due to a database error, the call must be connected someplace. This is where the name "default routing," or "PSAP of last resort" comes into play. Should this happen, and the call goes to a specialized Emergency Call Response Center (ECRC) like Northern 911, there is no location information due to the routing error.

The ECRC must verbally query the caller for their location. If the caller is unable to communicate that for any reason or is unaware of their situation, no one can help. Obviously, that would be a rough day for everyone, and it is something that needs consideration when relying on this type of solution.

If the caller can speak and does know their location, the ECRC operator can manually transfer the call to where they believe the correct PSAP is located.

Unfortunately, we are not out of the woods yet. We still have a few issues to resolve. First and foremost, the PSAP that is determined to be responsible for the call is a best guess judgment call by the ECRC operator. Again, the call came to them because the network was unable to locate the caller. If they have to manually transfer a call, it is often done to administrative lines and not the specialized 911 trunks. Because of this, it may not reach an emergency call taker right away—or at all—causing even further delay.

As an IT administrator, E911 is a topic that you need to understand. The ramifications are severe, and the implications could be irreversible. Taking the easy way out may lead you down a path you very well may regret.

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