Earlier this year, the President signed into federal law the Kari’s Law Act of 2017, a measure aimed at ensuring multi-line telephone systems (MLTS) users can directly access emergency personnel by dialing 911 without first dialing an access code. As you’ve probably observed, the passage of this new federal law was somewhat bittersweet, as the efforts to pass the law stemmed from a tragic event in 2013 where the inability to directly dial 911 from a hotel room resulted in a potentially preventable homicide. You’ve also probably observed that it took over four years for the federal government to adopt basic, uncontroversial, and seemingly common-sense requirements for how 911 calls from MLTS should work. Putting all that aside, Kari’s Law is now the law of the land when it comes to direct access to 911 from MLTS. But that’s not the end of it.
While progress in this area seems slow, lawmakers (and the industry as a whole) have been attempting to tackle, in addition to Kari’s Law, other MLTS/911-related issues that have been percolating for a while. This means more changes may be on the horizon, including some that might eventually result from a proceeding at the FCC involving 911 and Enterprise Communications Systems (ECS), a new term the FCC used to include both legacy MLTS and more advanced systems such as those using Internet Protocol or cloud-based services. For the companies that are involved with MLTS or ECS and 911, it’s a good time to take note of the landscape to implement necessary changes and to be prepared for other requirements that might be coming down the pipe.
Since Kari’s Law has been at the forefront of the discussion in the past few years, we’ll start there before circling back to other developments, including those at the state-level and at the FCC.
As you probably know, many telephone systems (in offices and hotels, for example) require an access code, or dialing prefix, to initiate calls outside of its system. This practice has proved problematic for users attempting to dial 911 who may be unfamiliar with the telephone system (e.g., children who have never worked in an office environment or made calls from hotels). Kari’s Law responded to this problem by mandating a new technical capability for MLTS, which is defined as “a system comprised of common control units, telephone sets, control hardware and software and adjunct systems.” Network and premises based systems, such as Centrex and VoIP, as well as PBX, Hybrid, and Key Telephone System, are included within this definition (which makes it more or less equivalent to the FCC’s ECS nomenclature, which is intended to refer to “the full range of networked communications systems that serve enterprises” – so we may use MLTS and ECS interchangeably).
Specifically, Kari’s Law, effective as of February 16, 2018, mandates that MLTS are preconfigured such that a user may dial 911 without first dialing any additional digit, code, prefix, or post-fix, even if the MLTS otherwise requires it for other calls outside its system. This means that nobody, including telephone companies selling MLTS services, may install, manage, or operate MLTS that lack that capability. To tackle the issue from another angle, Kari’s Law also prohibits the manufacture, importation, sale, and lease of MLTS without this capability, but that requirement has a two-year grace period and won’t take effect until February 16, 2020. Lastly, whenever 911 is dialed from an MLTS, the system must be configured to provide a notification to a central location at the facility where the MLTS is installed, or to a different location of the system operator’s choosing. These notifications are intended to alert the person or organization responsible for security that a potential emergency exists. This requirement does not have a grace period, taking effect immediately. However, it will only apply if the system can be so configured without an improvement to the hardware or software of the system.
While Kari’s Law just took effect in 2018, that doesn’t mean it’s been a lawless MLTS/911 landscape or that the issues haven’t been deliberated at many levels.
Indeed, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has been an active industry player in this area for some time, and many states (24 in 2016 according to the FCC) proposed or adopted various forms of MLTS/911 legislation well before the Federal inception of Kari’s Law. Some of these state laws contain similar “direct access to 911” requirements, while others go beyond to address 911 location accuracy requirements within MLTS-serviced premises. For example, in order to help emergency responders find and reach callers in need, some states require that MLTS providers transmit more specific 911 location information such as a floor or building number, if the MLTS serves a building/office over a certain size or a facility having multiple buildings at the same address. But as with many laws, MLTS requirements can vary greatly from state to state, making universal and uniform compliance a more difficult task for the companies involved.
As we’ve blogged about before, the FCC historically took the view that these MLTS/911 issues were better left to the states to handle. But even the FCC (due in part to directives from Congress) has kept somewhat active in the MLTS/911 debate. This includes a 2012 inquiry into improving 911 caller location capabilities for MLTS. More recently in 2017, likely due in part to the discourse surrounding Kari’s Law, the FCC reinserted itself into the equation by opening an inquiry into 911 access, routing, and location accuracy with respect to both legacy and more-advanced enterprise communications systems, or ECS. But as we noted previously (see our past blog for an overview), the FCC still has not committed itself to additional federal regulatory requirements in this area and even if/when additional rules are proposed by the FCC, adoption could be years away.
The passage of the federal version of Kari’s Law means there is now some uniformity across the country when it comes to the basic requirements of direct access to 911. However, state MLTS laws will continue to remain relevant, so long as they are not inconsistent with Kari’s Law, until the FCC or Congress takes further action at the federal level. Thus, while manufacturers, providers, and operators of MLTS should take heed of Kari’s Law (taking appropriate implementation steps if they haven’t already) and possible FCC developments, they should also keep at least one eye towards the states on both existing and potential state-level MLTS requirements.