Crime & Public Safety

Fire official warns of possible 911 problems with internet phone services


When you call 911, the last thing you want to hear is a busy signal or a recorded message.

But that's exactly what can happen when people make emergency calls from an Internet phone service. After learning last week of the risks that come with the cheaper, alternative plans, members of the Bluffton Township Fire District are urging customers to review their services and make sure they are properly set up to access 911.

Lee Levesque, the district's public education officer, said he received an email Thursday from a Bluffton man who was trying to trim his family's budget by signing up with an Internet phone service called a voice over internet protocol. He asked Levesque to help determine whether the VoIP would still allow him to reach 911.

Levesque said what he found was troubling.

VoIPs, such as Vonage, Jive and magicJack, offer disclaimers that their emergency services differ from traditional access to 911. Several complications can stop emergency calls from going through, including power outages and disruptions of internet service.

Disclaimers generally advise customers to maintain another way of dialing 911.

"The service is typically used as a supplement to wireless service, and the two work on different networks, which helps ensure if one is down, the other will still provide a 911 connection," Leasa Ireland, a spokeswoman for magicJack, said in an email Saturday.

Customers making emergency calls may also be routed to a company's national emergency call center if they use a softphone or Wi-Fi -- applications that allow people to make calls over the Internet.

Unlike reaching a local office, customers would have to tell a national call center agent their phone number and location, using up valuable seconds when there's no time to waste.

Levesque declined to name the companies he was researching but said some of them do not appear to offer access to 911 services while others only do so for a fee.

Vonage, Jive and magicJack customers are all able to make emergency calls as long as customers fill out a form or register their addresses in another way.

Levesque said he has spoken with several people about VoIPs, none of whom had encountered a problem calling 911. Members of several local departments said they haven't received complaints.

"But we don't want to wait for someone to have that issue," Levesque said.

Since Thursday, he has been reaching out to fire departments in Beaufort County and out of the state to see how they're responding.

He has not contacted any internet phone service and said he's not sure what can be done about changing their offerings. For now, he's focusing on spreading the word that the plans warrant another look.

"We want everyone to be able to reach us no matter the need," he said. "In the end, it comes back to the old adage, "buyer beware!

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