911 for Christmas? Think Twice BEFORE you buy

An Audio Podcast version of this Blog is available on the AVAYA PODCAST NETWORK

Last year, a very popular gift for the holiday season was a “911 Emergency Pendant” from a large television shopping retailer. It was advertised as a “lifesaving product”, and targeted at those who were living in, or had loved ones residing in a senior living establishment. It was also targeted at those living at home alone, clearly pulling at the heartstrings of those watching the broadcast. The unit was advertised as one having a single purchase price, which was just below $100 with their special $50 off offer, and the only one in the world that had no monthly fee for service, and the device worked “anywhere in the country”.

Being someone in the 911 industry, and understanding at a deep level how 911 works, I found this product a little hard to believe. Obviously, if it works anywhere, cellular technology would be required to provide service “anywhere in the country”. If cellular service was in use, there would be no possible way to provide that service, and included in a one-time purchase price that was less than $100.

To me, it became very clear what was happening here. Since June of 1996, an FCC report and order has mandated that cell phones making 911 emergency calls must be routed to the Public Safety Answer Point (PSAP)  without any interception by the carrier for credit checks or other validation procedures. This is commonly known as the NSI (Non-Service Initialized) rule. The origin of the bill had excellent merit. With the massive popularity of cellular phones, and the regular upgrade cycle from users, the number of devices left over from previous plans grew exponentially. As a case in point, I have three of them sitting on my desk in front of me as I write this.

It was decided that since cell phones were still uncommon with the general public, these spare phones would make excellent gifts to those who were financially less fortunate. With the NSI rule in place, the devices could be distributed to the financially needy, spouses who were victims of abuse, and a quick inexpensive panic button for anyone who needed to reach 911.

It wasn’t long before this rule became exploited by those looking to profit from the emergency services industry. Low cost, inexpensive chipsets could be manufactured and placed in a cheap plastic housing for just a few dollars, and Viola!  You have an emergency “panic button” style device able to call 911! So what’s wrong with this picture?

The main problem is, the 911 network, and 911 PSAP’s were not designed to deal with calls from these types of devices. Since the devices are NSI devices with no service plan, they have no telephone number. Since they have no telephone number, they fall outside of the operational model of the cellular 911 network. Some of the problems that become quickly apparent:

  • Location information is often unavailable.
  • If location is available, it’s often the cell tower and not the device.
  • If the user doesn’t know where they are, 911 can’t accurately locate them.
  • There is no telephone number, so a call back is impossible.


  • The device may not reach the proper PSAP.


With all of these potential failures, is this really something you want to put into the hands of a loved one? The ABC12 News Team in Emmet County Michigan found out that the one PSAP in northern Michigan decided they were not going to go down without a fight.  They resorted to Social Media by posting on their Facebook page exposing their thoughts through a warning about the device that was claiming to help people contact 911.

The Charlevoix, Cheboygan and Emmet Central Dispatch Authority reported that their test of the pendant did not work and urged residents to directly dial 911 reach authorities during an emergency. They detailed the situation where a local resident brought the device in trying to get help activating it after unsuccessful attempts on his own. Tests from the residents home, the 911 PSAP parking lot, and even from inside the 911 center itself, all failed to work as promised. The device did not provide any location information to the 911 center, so if the caller is unable to speak, or doesn’t know where they are, dispatchers would not be able to help them. The CCE Central Dispatch Facebook Page is available at http://facebook.com/CCE911

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