People dialing 911 trust that emergency services are only one call away. However, IT professionals and providers of unified communications and collaboration systems know that the process is complicated. To ensure technologies comply with current government regulations, IT administrators must know how 911 works and should know how modern legislation has shaped the emergency response system.

Established in 1967 as the first national emergency telephone number, 911 connects the caller to the local public safety access point or public safety answering point (PSAP). The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) worked with AT&T to develop 911 and define PSAPs around specific geographical areas where an emergency call must be routed. The FCC lists nearly 9,000 PSAPs across the nation in its database, a number that’s subject to change as PSAPs are combined, separated into smaller regions, or designated as primary or secondary.

Once the 911 call reaches the PSAP, the caller’s location information determines which police, fire, or dispatch station can respond the fastest. Thanks to the local phone company’s data, landlines have specific addresses associated with the phone number, generating an automatic location identification (ALI) by referencing the caller’s automatic number information (ANI). If the connection to the PSAP fails, the 911 call reroutes to general emergency services, where the operator relies on the caller for location information and then forwards the call to the correct PSAP within a matter of seconds.

But, landlines are a thing of the past, for the most part. In this time of mobile phones and voice over internet protocol (VoIP) devices, enhanced 911 (E911) service provides more detailed location information, such as what floor a caller is on or even what conference room on that floor. Cellular devices use a specific service called radio resource location services protocol (RRLP), which finds the caller’s location through either cell tower triangulation (called radiolocation) or GPS coordinates, then sends this information to the correct PSAP for emergency dispatch. Softphones on laptop or desktop computers work in a similar way, but only after the user’s company IT administrator sets up the device with the user’s physical address or had the user enter the location information before receiving a direct inward dial (DID) number.

Two specific and somewhat recent regulations — Kari’s Law and RAY BAUM'S Act — have simplified how 911 and E911 calls can be made and expanded how much information they carry. These laws resulted after a real-life tragedy occurred due to the requirement of dialing a prefix before dialing 911 and from the necessity to locate someone precisely in a multistory office building, respectively.

Kari’s Law, passed in 2018, required that all multiline telephone systems (MLTS) pass 911 calls through without dialing an extension, ensuring any fixed phone or softphone in a building can reach emergency services even if there is a standard prefix normally used to dial an outside line, such as dialing “9.” Additionally, 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. 

Meanwhile, RAY BAUM'S Act requires the 911 caller’s exact location information be passed through to the PSAP, telling first responders not only the street address but also the building floor, corner, and office number.

These laws reveal why it is so important that a regulating body, like the FCC, works with incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) (private companies that manage the PSAP database), to put standards of communication in place. In fact, some of these ILECs have contracted with 911 services to put a backup 911 capability in place, essentially becoming a secondary PSAP location. If the primary PSAP is ever unable receive calls for any number of reasons, the contracted service will pick up the call, know which PSAP it should have normally reached, and then act as the 911 operator, gathering the same information that would usually be gathered locally and sending it to the correct authority within the correct municipality.

While understanding 911 regulations and compliance can seem overwhelming, IT administrators have help. Working with a reputable and experienced unified communications and collaboration vendor will make it much easier to find the right solution to comply with Kari's Law and RAY BAUM's act — not to mention the many other critical aspects of 911 regulations and compliance.