What is 911?
If you are American, then you know what it is. If you are not, then you might be thinking of the 11th September, and what happened on that day. 911 is in fact the US emergency service, the equivalent of 112 in the European Union.There is now an enhanced version of 911 which is E911.
From now on in this article, let us call it emergency call, so that the article becomes relevant to a maximum number of people around the world.
It is indeed very important to be able to make emergency calls, because you never know when you need emergency services. While signing a contract with a VoIP service provider, you need to know whether you can dial emergency calls or not, so that if you cannot, you take your preliminary precautions. The simplest way of knowing that is to ask them.
Vonage, for example, supports the 911 or emergency call routing to most public safety jurisdictions, but you have to activate this feature first. Below is a small segment of Vonages service agreement concerning emergency calls:
"You acknowledge and understand that 911 dialing does not function unless you have successfully activated the 911dialing (sic) feature by following the instructions from the "Dial 911" link on your dashboard, and until such later date, that such activation has been confirmed to you through a confirming email. You acknowledge and understand that you cannot dial 911 from this line unless and until you have received a confirming email.
...Failure to provide the current and correct physical address and location of your Vonage equipment by following the instructions from the "Dial 911" link on your dashboard will result in any 911 communication you may make being routed to the incorrect local emergency service provider."
VoIP and 911
In 2005, two members of a family in the US were shot and the lives of other persons in the house were in danger. The house was equipped with VoIP phone system. One person tried calling 911 but to no avail! Fortunately, he had time to use a neighbors PSTN phone. Later on, he sued the VoIP service providing company.
VoIP has a problem with emergency calls, and service providers have been very slow to add it to their packages. It is finally rather unlikely to find a service with emergency calling facility. If there is, then another big question should be asked about its reliability.
The reasons for not including emergency calls in VoIP services are technical and political. If you are using a POTS (Plain Old Telephone System) phone, even if you have a power cut, you can still make calls. Else, for prepaid lines, even if you have no credit for making a call, you can still dial free emergency numbers. This is unfortunately not true for VoIP and there isnt much you can do about that.
Solutions you can try
The first and most simple solution is to have a normal POTS telephone set at home or in your office, along with your VoIP system. You can use and rely on the normal phone anytime of the day and night. If you dont want to bother installing or keeping a line for the normal phone, then use your mobile phone for emergency calls.
Another easy and cheap thing to do is to use a permanent marker to write down the full (and paid) telephone number of the closest public safety dispatcher or police station. You can do so near every phone set you have which is connected to the VoIP network. Dial the number in case of emergency. This is rather old-fashioned, you would say, but it can be very useful one day. If you dont want to be that old-fashioned, then configure your VoIP phones to make speed-dials on the emergency full number. It will be saved in memory. You can maybe think of 9-1-1 as a key combination!