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Creative Thinking Around E911

I'm not sure if it's conventional wisdom, common sense or just my own fevered imagination, but I always figured E911 would simply replace plain old 911 on desk phones. It might not happen right away. It might not happen consistently from state to state or country to country where emergency service regulations differ. But it would eventually happen in some way, shape or form. Shows you what I know.In the past two weeks I came across two very different instances of organizations making substantial changes to their voice systems and in the end delivering neither E911 nor 911 services to offices where 911 calls could until very recently be placed. The first is the University of Washington which opted to simply remove the telephones in some of its professors' offices. It was the Department of Communications, ironically enough, whose faculty had their desk phones and office lines completely removed. At first, I figured this was part of some grand unified communications implementation, where a soft phone or some shiny new voice-capable UC client replaced the staid old desk phone. But this isn't the case. Rather, the retirement of professors' telephones was part of a cost-cutting initiative. The university simply could not afford to keep the land lines in place. Some departmental admins still have telephones on their desks, and it is presumably these that workers will use when or if there's a need to call emergency services. I'm hoping the locations of these few remaining phones are fairly well marked, so panicky people know right where to go in the confusion of an emergency. Otherwise the next time I blog on this subject, the topic is likely to be centered more around the legal ramifications of improper E911 deployments.

The other instance of creative thinking when it comes to E911 is Aspect, which is in the process of retiring all of its traditional PBXs and relying solely on Microsoft Office Communications Server as its voice platform. The switchover has been completed in North America and Western Europe, where, as it's been explained to me, the only PBXs that remain are used as fax gateways. OCS does not yet natively support E911, though it is widely expected to be included in the next revision of the software due out early next year. In the meantime, third-party solutions like 911 Enable's Emergency Routing Service and Emergency Gateway can be deployed alongside OCS when it is used as a voice system. But rather than implement this or similar software, Aspect has instead retained a number of analog phones in each of its offices. These are the phones are designated for use in emergency situations, not the USB-attached PC peripherals deployed on end users' desks or the Microsoft Office Communicator client software. Aspect has reviewed local regulations regarding the availability of emergency services in its offices and says its use of POTS lines for 911 fully satisfies them.

Assuming Microsoft delivers E911 support as planned in the next major OCS software release, Aspect's approach makes a good deal of sense. Why go through the rigmarole of buying, deploying, and supporting third-party software that has the potential of making a UC implementation more costly and complicated than it already is? And since end users are undoubtedly undergoing more extensive training than they've ever needed for a new phone system, it should be fairly straightforward to add an "Oh, and don't use your desk phones for emergency calls. The new way you make a 911 call is using the phone over by the elevator" into the training process. Besides, the Microsoft USB telephone peripherals don't have a keypad in the first place, so it should be pretty clear to end users that they won't be dialing 911 or any other number from the device sitting on their desks.

Still--and without intending to sound overly dramatic--I'm trying to picture myself in an earthquake, fire, or over-caffeinated-dude-in-the-next-cubical-goes-postal situation. Am I going to want to run halfway across the floor, hoping to make it to the nearest POTS phone when desks closer at hand all have PCs and peripherals perfectly capable of placing phone calls? Am I going to be in a frame of mind to remember where the nearest POTS phone is? E911 is supposed to be about "enhancing" the 911 system. I'm not seeing anything particularly enhancing in this situation and I'm hoping it will be a temporary kluge that will resolve itself before long.

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