Friday, May 2, 2008

Is VoIP Safe?

A recent and unfortunate incident in Alberta has caused people to re-evaluate the safety issues related to using Voice Over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, telephone services.

VoIP services, which are phone services operating via broadband Internet, have always made it clear that there are 9-1-1 emergency dialing limitations. Either a call is first routed to a centre that takes down your address and then routes the call to the nearest dispatch location; or uses the most recent address on file and sends someone out to that location. In the most recent case, the Luck family moved from Mississauga, ON to Alberta, but failed to fill in the necessary change of address information online for they're VoIP provider. The young toddler became ill, and an ambulance was unknowingly dispatched to the Mississauga house first instead of the Calgary one. In the end, the baby passed on, and it remains to be seen whether the baby could have been saved if the ambulance had arrived more quickly: reportedly, it took between 30 and 40 minutes for it to finally arrive.

On the one hand, you couldn't possibly think of blaming the parents for not updating their information. Were they even clearly told that they needed to do this if they moved when they signed up for the VoIP service? Or was this necessary information simply hidden away in the fine print on the bottom of the contract? Nor can you blame the ambulance or dispatcher. They take what information they have, and do the best they can with it. However, it was noted that the first call to 9-1-1 rang five times before someone eventually called back; and that the mother did in fact provide their Calgary address, but the call somehow got disconnected and the information not accurately heard.

In a perfect world, all 9-1-1 emergency calls would go directly to a local emergency services location. Of course with new technology like VoIP, where someone's location will be determined by an IP address, not via a landline set-up, this becomes a bit trickier. My advice? If you're going to use VoIP, make sure to get all the details from the company upon sign up about what is required of you if you relocate. In some cases, you may need to call and have your information updated; while in others, you can simply update an online customer profile. Also, since most of us have mobile phones these days as well, it might be in your best interest to rely on that device rather than a VoIP line when in an emergency situation. Of course, in the event of an emergency, we're never thinking 100% straight, and rely on those called upon to help us to be the ones to think clearly.

Hopefully this unfortunate event will urge VoIP providers to dedicate more time to improving 9-1-1 services, because the option really is a much more affordable, and convenient, method than traditional landline calling.

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7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Can't blame the parents? Why not, VOIP providers in Canada are well aware 911 limitations and provide many avenues to easily update your location information.

Not to sound harsh, but if its proven that the child could have been saved through quicker medical intervention... that’s negligence causing death on the part of the parents. Can't blame the parents? Why not, VOIP providers in Canada are well aware 911 limitations and provide many avenues to easily update your location information.

Not to sound harsh, but if its proven that the child could have been saved through quicker medical intervention... that’s negligence causing death on the part of the parents.

We are personally responsible for our own safety and our dependants; this includes updating our emergency reponse information.

Anonymous said...

I've never switched to VoIP because of my lack-of-trust of their 911 service. Also, how many times does my telephone line go dead vs. service interruptions with my ISP? My phone line's gone down maybe once in 5 years; my connection to the internet... hundreds. If I ever do switch, I'm going to be sure to have my cellphone charged and on-hand to make any emergency calls. I recommend the same for everyone.

Anonymous said...

You said: "On the one hand, you couldn't possibly think of blaming the parents for not updating their information."

Actually, we know the family personally. Comwave knew of their address change because the mother called Comwave a week after they moved to their new home to update their address.

Comwave fails to mention that there is a paper trail all the way to baby Elijah Luck's door that puts Comwave in an extremely difficult position.

The address change was made in person and completed by Comwave by phone, and not by some wierd online form.

Comwave also failed to say that their invoices got through to the families new address but the fact that they did not update their system, puts Comwave at the scene of the deed. The family did all they could. Comwave did not.

There is no doubt many of our minds here in Calgary that the family is the victim of corporate negligence.

L Kamenov said...

The VOIP companies I have dealt with certainly stress enough how important it is to have the correct address updated for the 911 service. On other hand if it was obvious that 911 called failed the first time, use a cell, it is always good to have contingency in case of something like that. Also no parent should lack first aid training it costs under $100 and takes 2-5 days a week - in this case would've probably saved the baby's life.

IP address can hardly be used a location identifier on such scale. Considering the shortage of address space these days, IPs from Quebec are being assigned to Ontario and who knows where else.

Overall, machines hardly make mistakes. However humans do.

l kamenov said...

just to reiterate (without the typos)
a standard first aid course takes from 2-5 days and should be renewed every year (not weekly as in my previous comment). it's a small prices to pay. considering statistics, Seattle has the highest rates for people being saved when the paramedics were called. 60-80% of the city's population have been trained in first aid (numbers are relative, but still terribly high compared to Canada)

Anonymous said...

VOIP has limitations. People know this. The industry knows this. They publicize this.
I prefer POTS to VOIP for essential services. You'll rarely hear that POTS is down whereas the internet, well . . .
Consumers have the info at their fingertips like never before. Google VOIP 911 and it comes back with 251,000 entries for VOIP 911 in 0.12 seconds. The most prominent one appropriately named: http://www.911voip.org/

Anonymous said...

Wow - I hadn't heard that the family had been receiving bills and that they'd done the address change. If that is true, yikes!

"60-80% of Seattle's population are trained in First Aid." What? Maybe 60-80% of the population at Seattle General Hospital! According to seattleredcross.org there were 64,248 participants in "health and safety classes." Even if all of these classes had resulted in people being trained and up to date in First Aid the percentage would be around 11% of the Seattle population.

IMO there is no excuse for this tragedy and it casts a very dark shadow over VOIP. My sincerest condolences to the family and to anyone else who has been affected by errant VOIP 911 calls.