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The State of 9-1-1

A few weeks ago at Enterprise Connect Orlando, I was lucky enough to take part in a panel discussion led by Irwin Lazar of Nemertes Research on issues associated with 9-1-1. For those who weren't in the room, it's important to know that there was heated discussion as two animated vendor representatives discussed their different approaches to identifying, managing and providing useful location information to first responders behind an MLTS (multi-line telephone system). Aside from the in-room fireworks, however, the session reminded me that it might be time for a review of some useful and relevant 9-1-1 policy information.

A Quick Review on 9-1-1

While there are many federal laws that address issues associated with 9-1-1 in one way or another, there is no federal standard or law that tackles the issue of location identification behind an MLTS. That's not to say that there's no liability for an equipment or service provider (including hosted) when sufficient location information is not available when it's needed most -- in a life or death emergency. If you've secured an IP or hosted service in the past few years, one of the many documents that you've probably signed is a waiver of some sort that limits the provider's liability for providing what may be inaccurate location information. But I digress.

On the state level, only 18 states (along with a small handful of municipalities and counties, the biggest of which is the City of Chicago) have enacted specific rules that proscribe specific obligations for providing some minimal level of location information. This means, obviously, that there are a whopping 32 states have taken no action on this truly "life or death" issue. Despite the fact that your state may not have taken specific regulatory action, MLTS owners, providers, and operators are hardly relieved from obligations to provide safe work environments for employees, contractors, guests, and others who may be present at such facilities when an emergency occurs.

Laws -- particularly those under the purview of OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) demand an absolute obligation from employers to employees and guests to provide a safe workplace. It wouldn't even take a great lawyer to make a strong argument that the absence of access to accurate and reliable 9-1-1 information creates an unsafe workplace, thus placing significant liability on employers who have chosen, for any number of reasons (some of which might even be legitimate), not to take the reasonable steps necessary (here, "reasonable" is a legal term of art) to ensure a safe workplace. Additionally, for employers who have employees in multiple states, those employers are obligated to treat employees in different locations similarly, such that if a company is providing 9-1-1 specific location information in Chicago where it is required by law, the employer must take the steps necessary to provide sufficiently and similarly detailed information regarding location for employees located, for example, in New York, where no such state rules exist.

Different vendors offer different solutions to the location identification problem. But the single most important step that any employer or enterprise host should take is to work with its nearest first responders to identify which types of information the first responder(s) will find most useful. Is it station-specific location information? Is it coordinated through a central individual within the enterprise? There's no right answer to this question -- it's enterprise-specific. But the staff of a wise enterprise will work with the first responders to determine what information the responder will find most useful in an emergency when seconds count.

One other comment about the enterprise's decisions about how to manage on-campus location information: An enterprise -- whether it's a private business, a school, a governmental unit, or other entity -- is well-advised not leave these decisions solely to the IT or communications departments, but to include representatives from risk management, legal, finance and facilities departments, along with any other departments thought to bring something useful to the table. In this context, the more input there is from more departments, the more likely the outcome will reflect the needs of those who may be most critically affected.

Kari's Law Update

Kari Renee Hunt was tragically murdered in December 2013, in front of her young children who tried desperately to reach outside help by dialing 911 from a hotel room in Marshall, Texas. Because the hotel's phone system prevented access to outside lines, the kids' calls were unsuccessful. Although people in an adjoining room were able to get an outside line and reach first responders, it was too late and Ms. Hunt was killed. In her memory, her father, Hank Hunt, with some influential friends including Avaya's Mark Fletcher and FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, Kari's Law, which prevents hotels and other entities from blocking direct access to 911 has been enacted in a number of states. Most importantly, however, it has been passed by the U.S. House of Representatives and is currently waiting for final action by the U.S. Senate.

Passage and implementation of this bill should be a no-brainer. The cost to make existing phone systems compliant is negligible if anything, and given that prompt access to first responders can be the ultimate life-saving resource, it is not unreasonable to expect that Kari's Law will become truly "the law of the land" within the next 12 months. In the meantime, if you have a facility in a state where Kari's Law currently exists, it behooves you to make the changes to existing systems to be sure they're compliant. Again, it wouldn't take Perry Mason (I'm dating myself) or My Cousin Vinny to prove that an entity that hadn't made these changes was negligent, if not grossly negligent (read: expensive. VERY EXPENSIVE).

One final point: In those states where Kari's Law has been enacted and is now effective, it's important to understand the obligations it imposes. In some states, like Pennsylvania, the rules are highly specific, whereas in Maryland and Texas, there is a bit more latitude. If you've got facilities in these places, it's critical to know what those obligations are. They just could save your life!