The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has adopted new rules requiring manufacturers, importers, vendors, installers and managers of multi-line telephone systems (“MLTS”) to configure those systems to provide automated location information (called “dispatchable location”) and a location-specific callback number when a caller makes an emergency call to 911, at least to the extent feasible using technology when and as available.  The idea is to provide first responders with information about where to find a 911 caller who may be unable to speak for any number of reasons, such as being injured or held hostage, and may even not know where he or she is.

The new rules will apply only to new installations and major upgrades after February 16, 2020.  Systems after that date must be preconfigured to be capable of complying with the new rules, although longer periods of time are allowed for the implementation of dispatchable location requirements. There is no deadline for mandatory replacement or upgrading of systems already in place on that date.

Special attention was drawn to deficiencies in the 911 system when a young child was unable to summon help for her mother from a hotel room because, although she had been taught to dial 911, she did not know that she had to dial 9 for an outside line first – she should have dialed 9-911.  Congress responded with Kari’s Law, requiring MLTS to put through 911 calls without any dialing prefix.  Section 506 of RAY BAUM’S ACT followed, mandating improvements in delivering dispatchable location information to Public Service Answering Points (“PSAPs”).

Everyone in the supply chain is on the hook.  You will get in trouble if, after February 16, 2020, you manufacture or import a non-compliant MLTS system; sell, lease, or offer to sell or lease one;  install one; or have a contract to manage one not in place before that date.  End-user customers will be expected to cooperate by requiring compliance by their vendors, as well as by supplying vendors with whatever information they have about the location of their phone extensions to help vendors populate databases that will retrieve and transmit location information to PSAPS that that answer 911 calls.

Any new or upgraded MLTS that is capable of delivering an outbound call to the public switched telephone network (“PSTN”) is subject to the new rules. It does not matter whether the system works on copper telephone lines, optical fiber, the Internet, the cloud, or anything else.  Of course, if the system is one-way outbound only, it will not be able to receive a callback from the PSAP, but there may be other ways to re-establish a disconnected call.  The only exemptions will be for systems that are internal only and cannot make any outbound calls.  There is no exemption for small systems or small entities, because their problems are addressed by variations in the detail of the information that must be delivered with a 911 call.

When a caller dials 911, an MLTS system in a large building must automatically deliver the best dispatchable location information available.  If the call comes from a telephone that always stays in the same location, the telephone system must deliver a validated street address and floor and room number if possible, along with a callback number.  Systems with direct inward dialing (“DID”) should deliver the callback number associated with that extension.  If the system has no DID capability, which is common in large buildings and hotels in particular, the best available information, including room number when feasible, must be transmitted to the PSAP.  For a business located in a small building, or for a residence, the street address and a main number callback may be sufficient to allow first responders to locate a distressed caller quickly.  The delivery of dispatchable location information for fixed telephones is required one year after the new rules become effective.

In addition, when a 911 call is made from any location, fixed or non-fixed, the MLTS must at the same time send a message to someone associated with the calling location who knows the building and can help first responders find the caller.  If the calling location is large enough to have a watch desk or a security center, that is where the message should go, but during times when entities have no on-premises human presence, the call can go to anywhere, including to an owner or employee at his or her home or cellphone number.  For the time being, the separate message must include a callback number, if available, and the same location information detail that was sent to the PSAP.  The FCC would also like the message to include the date and time of the call, but the record was not sufficient to conclude whether inclusion of that information is currently feasible.

If the call comes from an off-premises location, the amount of available information will often be less than from a fixed location. Off-premises calling is an area where rapidly developing technology will provide challenges. The problem is relatively easy to solve if an MLTS off-premises extension is located at a known fixed place, such as an employee’s home.  But other technologies permit employees to call from almost anywhere and have their call appear to originate from the home office of the business, regardless of whether they are physically at their business, at a customer’s premises, or sipping daiquiris on a beach.  Some callers use “soft phones,” which are configurations on the screen of their cellphone, tablet, or computer that allow dialing PSTN numbers.  Identification of the origination point of non-fixed on- and off-premises calls should be as good as possible within the limits of the technology available at the time.  Examples of available location methods include cell site location, GPS, and identification of Wi-Fi access points.  It is permissible to have an automatic prompt asking the caller to speak his or her location if nothing better is available.  The compliance deadline for non-fixed and off-premises phones is two years after the new rules become effective.

Voice-over-Internet-Protocol (“VoIP”) outbound-only services are subject to the new rules within two years after the rules become effective, within the limits of their capabilities.  VoIP service providers currently ask users for a “Registered Location” for emergency calls when they sign up for the service, but that location usually has nothing to do with where an itinerant caller is physically located.  The FCC will require that the best available location information be delivered, with Registered Location used as only a fallback.  Skype offers actual location delivery to customers in Europe, showing that VoIP technology permits at least some automated determination of actual caller location.  Warnings must be given to users if the service has no location-determining capability.

The technologies in use are expanding every day, which will make it difficult for the FCC to keep its rules up to date.  For example, some businesses contract out their MLTS, and all their calls are processed at a remote location that may be hundreds or thousands of miles away.  If the call processing is remote, the location of the originating telephone may not be known to the call processing center without upgrades and the development of new databases.  Calls to 911 may be sent to a national PSAP center for further routing, based on the assumption that the caller will be able to identify his or her location by speech.  The FCC’s intent is to get calls delivered to the correct local PSAP in the first instance with as much information as possible about the caller’s location.

Where location information is retrieved from a manually compiled database, the obvious question arises as to the risks of errors and obsolete data, which could lead first responders to the wrong location.  While the FCC will hold everyone in the supply chain responsible for compliance with its rules, one party will not be responsible for the failure by another party in the chain, and all will be shielded from liability for rescue failures to the same extent as local telephone companies already are.  Enforcement will be on a case-by-case basis, and it is contemplated that rulings in individual cases will develop details and interpretations of the requirements.  States may adopt stricter rules but may not waive any of the federal rules.

Despite its desire to encompass all outbound calling technologies, the FCC recognizes that it will take time to upgrade some specialized technologies.  Telecommunications Relay Service (“TRS”) for persons with hearing loss will have one year to provide a dispatchable location for fixed calling locations and two years for non-fixed locations, but keyboard-base TTY-based services and services that rely on the customer’s underlying telephone service provider are exempt.  TRS providers will not have to detect when a call originates from other than a Registered Location if such detection is not technologically feasible.

Likewise, the FCC has concluded that it is premature to require a dispatchable location to be delivered with 911 calls made by text rather than by voice. Within two years, the best available location information must be transmitted, but retrofitting of legacy mobile handsets will not be required.

We anticipate that there will be situations and equipment configurations that the FCC did not anticipate, and the nuances of what the term “technologically feasible” means in specific circumstances will have to be fleshed out in future rulings.  Meanwhile, if you are an MLTS user, you should make sure that no dialing prefix is required for a 911 call, and you should work with your vendor to exploit whatever capabilities your equipment has for delivering dispatchable location information, including populating a database of extension locations.  If you purchase or upgrade an MLTS system for delivery after February 16, 2020, make sure that your procurement contract requires, or goes beyond, compliance with the new requirements for both information delivered to the PSAP and messages to a representative of the occupant of the premises who can help direct first responders to the room, floor, or building wing from which a call originated.  In the end, PSAPs say that they want and need to know “which door to kick down” to find a caller in distress.

The new rules will become effective 30 days after they are published in the Federal Register, which has not yet occurred.  However, requirements to provide dispatchable location are subject to approval by the Office of Management and Budget (“OMB”).  OMB approval should come before the one-year and two-year implementation deadlines; but if the OMB process is stalled by industry or public objections, compliance deadlines could be deferred.