The FCC today launched a notice of inquiry to examine how well 911 calls are handled by enterprise communications systems used in businesses, hotels, educational institutions, government entities, and other buildings. “Consumers have a right to expect that a 911 call made from anywhere in the country will be routed to the appropriate 911 call center, along with precise, accurate location and callback information so that they can be found by emergency responders,” Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau Chief Lisa Fowlkes said during today’s FCC meeting. “This is no less true for 911 calls made within office buildings, educational campuses, and hotels served by enterprise-based communications systems.”
The notice of inquiry in PS docket 17-239, the FCC said, notes that there have been reports that, in some cases, enterprise communications systems may not support direct 911 dialing, route calls to the nearest 911 call center, or provide accurate location regarding the caller’s location.
“In an emergency, it shouldn’t matter whether you’re calling from your house, an outdoor park, or an office building,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement. “You should be able to reach first responders quickly, and those first responders should be given the information they need to assist you.”
Among the aims of the notice of inquiry, the FCC said, was to determine why enterprise communications systems “appear to be lagging.”
Mr. Pai also urged Congress to pass the Kari’s Law Act, which would require enterprise communications systems to be configured so they permit users to directly initiate a 911 call without having to dial any additional digit or prefix.
While many legacy enterprise communications systems use Multi-Line Telephone Systems, many enterprises are increasingly turning to Internet Protocol-based systems, including cloud-based services, for their phone systems, the FCC noted in a statement.
Included in the questions under review, the FCC said it was asking for input on what the current state of the enterprise communications systems marketplace is; what expectations the public has when calling 911 from a business; what capabilities and limitations enterprise communications systems have regarding provision of 911 calls; and what state legislation and industry standards exist regarding the issue.
In addition, the FCC said, it is seeking comment on how 911 calling from such locations can keep “pace with technological developments and public expectations” about things such as best practices and the development of voluntary technical or operational standards.
The notice of inquiry also seeks comment on whether the FCC should continue to refrain from adopting 911 rules specifically for enterprise communications systems, or whether the commission should update or streamline existing rules to improve support for 911 capabilities for those systems.
Several questions relate to the level of location information currently provided about where calls come from, as well as the costs and benefits of provisioning 911 capabilities using enterprise communications systems, the FCC said.
In addition to Mr. Pai, the item drew support from the other Commissioners. “This item should help enhance the provision of emergency communication services to the public and I am pleased to support it,” Commissioner Mignon L. Clyburn said during the meeting.
In particular, Ms. Clyburn praised the decision to include questions in the inquiry about whether there are any “challenges different from other services” that arise for enterprise communications systems during hurricanes and other natural disasters that do not affect other services in the provision of 911 services. Ms. Clyburn also praised the inquiry for including questions about how precise the location information about a 911 caller should be when using an enterprise communications system. For instance, whether it would be sufficient for emergency responders to know the floor of an office building a call has come from or whether it would be better to know an exact office number.
While Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel voted in favor of opening the inquiry, she also said it would be “thinking small” to limit the FCC’s overall efforts regarding improving 911 services to only considering enterprise communications systems.
“We need a big commitment,” she said. “We need to remake our 911 systems for the digital age; we need to provide leadership for next generation 911.” The next generation of 911 communications should include the ability to provide live video from a scene or pictures of a fleeing suspect, Ms. Rosenworcel said. “For those who take calls in an emergency, all of this data can expedite and inform public safety efforts, dramatically improving emergency response,” she argued.
Commissioner Brendan Carr noted Congress and the public safety community have expressed concerns about the 911 capabilities of enterprise communication systems to be able to provide accurate location and other information. “That can, and has, lead to tragic circumstances in which public safety officials have been unable to locate a caller or sent first responders to the wrong location, wasting the critical minutes that often can make the difference in the case of emergencies,” he said.
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly did not give a statement at the meeting.
The inquiry also prompted supportive comments from the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International Executive Director and Chief Executive Officer Derek Poarch.
“We applaud the Commission for adopting a Notice of Inquiry to take a fresh and comprehensive look at the state of enterprise communications systems,” he said. “We look forward to reviewing the full text of this item and working to ensure ECS supports important capabilities for 9-1-1 such as direct dial, routing, and actionable location information.”
Meanwhile, the National Emergency Number Association said in a statement it was “hopeful” the notice of inquiry is a “first step” toward resolving challenges for using enterprise communications systems to access 911 services. “For far too long, workers, guests, residents, and patients in our offices and factories, hotels, dormitories, and hospitals have faced unnecessary barriers to effective 911 access,” the group said. “In a time of emergency, anyone who picks up a telephone should expect to dial 911, reach a trained public safety professional, be automatically located, and be quickly reached by field responders. Today, however, that is often not the reality.” —Jeff Williams