Technology

Xenakis on Technology: Enhanced 9-1-1 Can Save Employees’ Lives, for a Price (Updated)

Is the phone company overcharging companies that want to protect their employees?
John XenakisJanuary 17, 2001

(Updated to change “RedSky’s AutoPilot starts at about $50,000 for 50 lines…” to say “RedSky’s AutoPilot starts at about $30,000 for 1,000 lines…”)

“Enhanced 911” (E-9-1-1) is what tells the emergency response services the address you’re calling from. But if one of your employees dials 911 from one of your multi-line business phones, then the ambulance might be sent to the wrong address.

If you have a multi-line phone system hooked up through a PBX, then the phone company has only one address, usually the company’s main office. The problem is that phones might be scattered among multiple offices, sometimes as much as 10 or 15 miles apart.

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If you care about the danger this presents your employees, especially those who work at odd hours, then the phone company has a solution for you. Each phone company maintains a large database of “Enhanced 911” information, and you can arrange to have it include the specific location for each of your multi-line phones — the exact building, floor, area, and cubicle number.

When an employee dials 911, the paramedics will know her exact location.

That’s what Paula Graller, voice communications manager for W.W. Grainger Inc. of Lake Forest, Ill., has done, not only for Grainger’s phone lines, but also, with her previous employer, for the huge McCormick Place and Navy Pier convention buildings in Chicago.

“McCormick Place is the largest convention center in the Midwest, and Navy Pier is also very big,” says Graller. “For example, we can have five or six million people going through Navy Pier in a year, and so getting an Enhanced 911 system to quickly determine where to locate a problem was very critical to us.”

In all three cases, Graller used AutoPilot 911, a software product from RedSky Technologies Inc. (www.redskytech.com). AutoPilot is designed for large companies, with 500 or more lines controlled by PBX or other similar switches. Whenever a technician adds or changes a line in the switch, he must store into the switch the “Automatic Location Information” required by Enhanced 911.

Then the AutoPilot software takes over. It monitors the company’s PBX switches on a regular schedule, reads the location information out of the switch, and stores it remotely into the phone company’s E-9-1-1 database.

RedSky’s AutoPilot starts at about $30,000 for 1,000 lines. Major competitors are Proctor & Associates Inc. (www.proctorinc.com) and Telident Inc. (www.telident.com). In addition, phone companies have their own basic packages.

When I first started researching this story, I thought it would a nice, sweet little moralistic piece saying, “Hey, you love your employees — this is cheap insurance — do it and save a life,” kind of thing, perhaps with a little tale of someone’s life who was saved.

But unfortunately, the story wasn’t that simple.

First off, E-9-1-1 is a great way to generate revenue – for the phone company. For example, Verizon’s prices (not including the RedSky software) just to update its database include setup charges and monthly fees, are as follows: $3,000 for database setup and access and $750 per trunk (minimum of two) for network trunk installation.

Recurring monthly fees include $10 for each block of 100 records on file to cover database maintenance and management, and $39 per network access trunk (minimum of two) for accessing the database.

Should a database setup cost $3,000? You know that’s very profitable just by looking at it. (Verizon did not respond to a request for an explanation.) Don’t forget that this is a minimum cost. The total cost can quickly exceed $25,000, even for a small business.

But if you want to protect your employees with E-9-1-1, then you have to pay it, especially in states like Illinois, Washington, Vermont, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas, where the law requires you to do so.

“There’s been a lot of controversy over this law,” says Marci Schroll, 911 Assistant Program Director for the Illinois Commerce Commission, the Illinois state agency that regulates E-9-1-1.

“Many businesses claimed that it was too expensive to comply with, and so the law was rewritten to lessen the requirements. The law was changed so that instead of identifying every station [phone line] in the building individually, you only had to identify groups of stations in the same 40,000 square feet of work space,” she says. “And any business with less than 40,000 square feet didn’t have to do anything.”

This change provided a very clever “out” for many businesses, even larger businesses. The company could provide a separate trunk for each 40,000 square feet of space, and make sure that the phone company billing records for each trunk record an address within that 40,000 square feet area.

However, this really isn’t a solution at all, according to James Carlini, president of Carlini & Associates Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm, who says that this change is a mistake and effectively guts the Illinois law.

Carlini says, “40,000 square feet is still pretty big. Say you have a business with 120,000 square feet, and you break it up into three trunks. Your business could be in a big office building with 10,000 to 15,000 square feet on each floor, with non-contiguous floors. The people responding to a 9-1-1 wouldn’t know whether to look on the third floor or the 30th.”

The 40,000 square-feet threshold is also too big for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA, www.nena9-1-1.org), the principle standards organization working with the Federal Communications Commission to develop national 911 standards.

“We looked at stats and evaluations, to see how much area can be searched by the fire department in a given period of time, and we settled on 7,000 square feet as a compromise,” says Roger Hixson, standards chairman. “If you have cubicles, then 7,000 may be too high, while for an open warehouse, 7,000 may be enough.”

Carlini says that there’s an even worse problem, having to do with the fact that the E- 9-1-1 database contains just a 20-character field for specific location information.

NENA provides an optional standard that tells you to use something like “Flr2,SW,Rm219,CubeA” to stand for “2nd floor, southwest corner, room 219, cubicle A.”

But suppose your abbreviations are just a little too clever, and the 9-1-1 response team can’t figure them out in time.

“The bottom line is that the corporation maintains the database, and has to send the right information,” says Carlini. “If the wrong location information is sent, and somebody dies, then the corporation might be liable.”

Finally, I asked Paula Graller if she thinks her employers would have implemented E-9-1-1 on their phones if there hadn’t been an Illinois law requiring it.

“At McCormick Place and Navy Pier we probably would have, just because they’re so big,” she says. “But at Grainger, they’re so focused on the health and well being of their employees, there’s no doubt that they would have done it.”

(Send John Xenakis your questions and comments for Xenakis on Technology (XOT) to [email protected])

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