As one of those icky voice engine…rock stars that everyone always hears about then snickers quietly about, I spend a lot of time implementing phone systems all over the place. I’m a firm believer in creating my own route patterns/dial peers instead of trying to untangle the knot of evil that is 9.@. One of the questions that I bring up when talking about design with my customers is “How do you want to handle emergency calls?”. For those in the USA, this corresponds to 911. For my friends across the pond, this is 999. I’m going to use 911 here, but feel free to replace it with 999 or whatever your emergency calling number happens to be.
When I ask this question, more often than not it is met with a reply of “What do you mean?” They’ve never really put any thought into emergency services. My next question usually sounds like “How do you dial emergency services today?” Usually people will rattle off ‘911’. The smarter ones usually respond with, “Oh. I see.” They picked up on the fact that dialing emergency services in a PBX environment isn’t always straight forward.
911 is easy enough to program into the phone system. However, I’ve been asked to leave it out sometimes. People in certain cases have a tendency to start dialing and forget what the number they were trying to call was. They dial ’91’ then look back at the paper the telephone number was written on. As soon as they realize it is a long distance telephone call, they dial an additional ‘1’. When that happens, before they can dial any additional numbers, they dial peer for ‘911’ is matched and immediately sends those digits to the PSTN, where a friendly emergency services operator answers even if the customer hangs the phone up immediately. In these cases, if the “Urgent Priority” checkbox is marked in the route pattern, the interdigit timeout is ignored and the call completes immediately. You can’t hang up fast enough to avoid calling emergency services. I bolded that statement because it’s very important. If you hang up the phone, the 911 operator will still get your Automatic Number Identification (ANI) information. What they do with it is up to the policy set by the individual emergency department. You can see the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) guidelines HERE (PDF Warning). Many operators will attempt to call you back right away. Others will dispatch emergency services to the address listed in the Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) database for the given ANI information. At any rate, they operator has to ensure the call wasn’t genuine and they work from the assumption it was an emergency call. As a quick aside, if you do accidentally dial 911/999, stay on the line and explain what you did. If you fess up, they will be much less grumpy.
With ‘911’ removed from the system as a route pattern because of the above situation, that leaves ‘9.911’ as the access code for emergency services. Most people feel more comfortable with this solution, since people will avoid the accidental 911 call if they have to press ‘9’ twice to get there. And in 90% of the cases, this is effective. However, allow me to paint a hypothetic picture:
I have a young son. I’ve taught him that if he ever needs the police or if someone is very badly hurt he should dial 911 on the telephone. Imagine I bring my son to work with me one Saturday morning for some reason. As we are sitting in the office, I fall over suffering from a heart attack or stroke or some other malady the prevents me from telling my son what to do. He realizes that Daddy is hurting and needs to dial ‘911’ to get an ambulance. However, in this office ‘911’ isn’t a valid route pattern due to accidental calls. My son tries and tries to get the doctors to come help Daddy, but the amount of time that elapses is just to great for help to arrive…
Depressing, isn’t it? My son isn’t alone. A great number of people are unreliable when it comes to stress. They break down and start crying when faced with a stressful situation. Or they freeze up and don’t act. Or worse, they lose their minds and start acting on bad instincts, or training for something from 20 years ago. As a rule, you can never count on what people are going to do in a stressful situation. In addition, is there additional liability in this case for the company that impeded the ability for me to be saved by restricting the availability of emergency services? Laugh if you will, but it has come up in courts of law before, so there is precedent for a civil suit if not a criminal case. So what’s the answer?
In all my phone systems, I configure both 911 and 9.911. Being the eternal optimist, I leave nothing to chance and don’t rely on anyone’s bad judgment or stress to prevent the possibility of help reaching those most in need of care. I look at accidental 911 calls as a training issue to be dealt with. I train my users to stay on the phone and inform the emergency personnel that they made a mistake. Usually, there will be a couple of questions asked to verify the identity of the caller, and in some rare cases even non-emergency personnel may be dispatched at a later time to confirm everything. But that is a small price of time to pay versus the possibility of a fine, which has been suggested by emergency departments in many cases where there have been repeated accidental 911 calls followed by hang-ups.
Should I ever find myself hauled before a judge and jury to testify as an expert witness or worse, the implementer of the system in question, I want to be able to answer truthfully that I configured every possible avenue for support to arrive to assist those who needed it. I don’t want to think that my actions or inactions caused someone to suffer grave harm or even death.
So if you find yourself having a conversation with someone about implementing a 911 dial peer or route pattern, make sure to bring up all the ramifications and repercussions of leaving off one pattern or the other. If they make the decision to leave one out anyway, make absolutely sure it is documented in writing somewhere so any later investigation shows that you as the provider/implementer raised all the possible objections first. You’ll save yourself a ton of headaches down the road.
And those vendors that tell that physical phones are long dead and that soft clients rule the landscape now? Just ask them this question: “How am I supposed to dial 911 at Fred’s desk if I don’t know the password to unlock his workstation and use his softphone? How will my 5-year-old do it when he doesn’t know how to type?” Chances are you’ll be met with silence. Ain’t no joke there.