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Internet Access to 9-1-1 Through VoIP and SMS - When Signals Are Blocked

Author: Kevin G. Coleman

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2014-10-13
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The internet has become an essential part of modern communication.  Two commonly used Internet communications systems are Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and Short Message Service (SMS).  With the growing adoption and use of VoIP and SMS comes the need for 9-1-1 centers to ensure emergency calls through these two methods get through.

To give you an idea of the popularity of VoIP and SMS, here are two usage metrics.  VoIP hit nearly 290 million subscribers worldwide at the end of 2013 and 65 percent of those VoIP users were in the United States. That drove the Federal Communications Commission to taken steps to require VoIP service providers including ones on wireless networks, to meet the requirements of Enhanced 9-1-1 systems. Now for messaging, according to industry analysts from Forrester Research in 2013 some 6 billion SMS messages are sent each and every day in the United States!  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took action to enable individuals to send a text message to 9-1-1 centers by voting 3-2 to require wireless companies and some messaging application providers to allow people to send texts to the emergency response service by the end of 2013.  It should be noted that at this time these systems are far from perfect and there are reported problems connecting with 9-1-1 and 9-1-1 responding back.

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A situation that has been becoming more and more common over the years has now reached a point where action must be taken to protect access to 9-1-1.  Many conference centers, facilities for corporate retreats, and other gathering facilities began to block all internet access unless it goes through their systems.  Of course they charge for the Internet access through their system – thus providing them with a revenue stream.  This means if you have a subscription to some wireless internet provider service for your tablets (or laptops) you cannot access that while within their facility.  You must use and pay for access their systems.

As you may recall we went through this once before with cell phones.  A few institutions jammed cell phones so those using the devices did not disrupt, distract, or annoy other customers.  The FCC took action then and made it clear that it is a violation of federal law to use a cell jammer or similar devices that intentionally block, jam, or interfere with authorized radio communications such as cell phones, police radar, GPS, and WiFi.  That being the case, you have to wonder why there are multiple providers of cell phone, GPS, and WiFi jammers advertising these devices for under $100 to a few hundred for more sophisticated models.

The ability to access 9-1-1 in a time of need is critical and must be independent of the technology used by the caller.  However, the issue does not stop with VoIP and SMS messaging.  Many medical devices and those that are implanted often use WiFi Internet connections to communicate the patient’s and device’s status.  Wearable computing is ushering in a new era of remote medical monitoring.  Medical monitoring devices are becoming embedded in clothing and communicate via the Internet with remote facilities that alert medical professionals to readings and patient status that are of a concern.  Can you imagine the implications of such a device being blocked and not able to send the abnormal data to the remote clinician that is actively monitoring the patient? 


Blocking or jamming wireless Internet access is just asking for trouble and is illegal!  Local authorities must get ahead of this issue.  During inspection, or while preplanning and preparing for large scheduled gatherings, emergency services representatives need to make sure no blocking of the wireless Internet signals is occurring or will occur.  Organizations need to think about the repercussion that would surely accompany their actions if they were to block Internet access/communication if there were an emergency.  Could a facility be criminally charged if an individual with a medical device that communicates via the Internet dies while at their facility and the Internet is blocked?  Or what about not being able to complete a VoIP 9-1-1 call?  You don’t have to be a lawyer to see that is a distinct possibility. 

Kevin G. Coleman is a seasoned technology professional and instructor with a comprehensive background in emergency response. He was chief of an ISO class 4 volunteer fire department and is a former International Society of Fire Service Instructors George D. Post-Fire Instructor of the Year. He has 20 years of success in the development and implementation of cutting-edge technology and training strategies and continues to work with innovative leaders in business, government, and the military on strategic issues of critical importance such as cyber threats.



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