HELP! Operator! Gimme the number for 911!


True, it’s funny when Homer says it, but in many places around the world that actually may be a valid question. We talk about the first 911 call in the United States taking place on February 16, 1969 in Haleyville Alabama. But we need to look back even further to find the very first emergency call ever made, with the exception of Alexander Graham Bell calling for Watson when he spills battery acid on himself, as the story goes.

As typically the case, it was a disaster when lives were lost; 1935 five women died during the fire in Wimpole Street in London. Apparently neighbors, who had to dial zero and ask the operator for police fire or ambulance, found that the telephone operator switchboard had been jammed with calls, and weren’t able to get through.

The General Post Office, which ran the telephone network in London, decided that a new three digit number could be used to reach emergency services. Additionally, it would be able to trigger specialized alerting that would indicate to the operators the presence of an emergency call. The alerting was accomplished by flashing lights and an audio device called a “Hooter”. I’ll give you all a second to finish your childish snickering. All done? Great. The number chosen was 999, and if you want the reasoning behind that there is a great article by the BBC that tells the entire story.

Currently, across the European Union member states, 112 is typically recognized as the official emergency number. Although in most places the legacy numbers are also recognized. One of the problems Europeans experience, according to the European Emergency Number Association (EENA), is the lack of knowledge of 112 as the EU wide emergency number according to recent surveys. Only single-digit percentage growths have been seen over the past five years with three out of four European citizens still not aware that they can dial 112 all over Europe.

This past month at an International Telecommunications Union (ITU) conference on UN telecommunications regulations in Dubai, 193 nations committed to decide between either 911 or 112 as a standard global emergency number for new generations of mobile phones and other devices. If you’re going to go that far, and actually state one or the other, then, in my opinion, it only makes sense to support both.

Let’s face it, we’ve invested so much in our 911 education in North America, that it would just be counterproductive to “change” the designated emergency number. The same holds true in the European Union where 112 has been highlighted. Even adding in 999, popular in London and the United Kingdom, would limit the list to three, something certainly manageable at most levels.

PBX or MLTS administrators, in addition to remediating their 911 dialing, should examine their user base and understand the need to support additional emergency numbers. 911 and 9-911 are obvious entries in your emergency dialing tables, but if you find that you have a large employee base that includes folks from Europe, it would be wise or to provision 112 and 9-112 or 999 and 9-999 as valid dialing patterns in the PBX. Just make sure that you translate anything that is not 911 to the digits 911 as today’s carrier networks are probably not provisioned to recognize 112 or 999 as emergency numbers.

Oddly enough, this isn’t the case on most cellular networks today. In fact, not only does my iPhone recognize 112 as an emergency number, putting the device in “emergency mode”, it translates the 112 numbers to 911, where the network then connects me as if I had dialed 911 myself.


As we move forward with new communication technologies and modalities, SIP will be the primary protocol used for transport. Based on this, phone numbers will become less and less relevant, and an endpoint or destination name will replace it. My identity, and how to reach me will shift from 908-848-2602 to something more like my email address Which is another reason why routing emergency calls based on telephone numbers is an archaic architecture that does not fit the next generation 911 model, and we have to STOP relying on phone numbers as location references. In order to maintain phone number to location correlation, there’s far too much automation, complexity, and expense associated with that. Moving forward, based on this thinking, emergency services will be able to migrate to simply “SOS” as an emergency destination address, and location information will be conveyed in the PIDF-LO location object in the SIP header.

Once that problem is solved, Homer can start working on a real problem:

I like to take this opportunity to wish all of you a safe, happy and healthy holiday of your choice. I greatly appreciate your support, and interest in fixing the emergency number problems in your MLTS/PBX systems, as well as those of you in the 911 industry itself, I would like to thank you for all that you do. Although I’m not a 911 “frequent-flier”, I’ve had enough incidents over the past couple years to personally appreciate the personal sacrifices you make and the dedication you give to your jobs.

Next week I’ll be taking off for the holidays, but, I’ll go through the 120 podcast and special reports, and post the most popular episode over the past two years.

We’ll see you back live on Friday, December 28 where will do a 2012 year-end wrap-up. Until then, take care, enjoy your families, and once again have a safe and happy holiday.

Follow me on Twitter @Fletch911

Read my other AVAYA CONNECTED Blogs

Mark J. Fletcher, ENP is the Chief Architect for Worldwide Public Safety Solutions at Avaya. As a seasoned professional with nearly 30 years of service, he provides the strategic roadmap and direction of Next Generation Emergency Services in both the Enterprise and Government portfolios at Avaya. In 2014, Fletcher was made a member of the NENA Institute Board in the US, and co-chair of the EENA NG112 Committee in the EU, where he provides insight to State and Federal legislators globally driving forward both innovation and compliance.

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