Wireline to Wireless or VoIP—Don’t Give Up Your Landline

Guidelines for calling 911 from a cell phone (recommended by the FCC)

  • Tell the emergency operator your location right away
  • Give the emergency operator your phone number so if you get disconnected the operator can call you back.
  • Program the phone number for highway accidents or other non-life threatening incidents into your phone, so you don’t use 911 unnecessarily.
  • Don’t program your phone to automatically dial 911 when a single key is pressed because this can result in unintentional calls to 911 that further burden the already overwhelmed system.

Although it is now possible to transfer your phone number to your cell phone and abandon your land line altogether, TURN does not recommend doing so.

The primary concern for customers considering such a switch is the inferior 911 emergency capability of cell phones; 911 calling may not work in “dead zones” or during power outages, earthquakes or other disasters.

Almost half of all 911 calls nationwide are made from cell phones, but those calls don’t go to emergency 911 dispatchers. When Californians dial 911 on their cell phones they are connected with the California Highway Patrol rather than their local emergency services. California Highway Patrol operators have been overwhelmed by the increase in emergency calls they receive, and are often unable to determine where the calls are coming from. A land line call to 911 shows the dispatcher the callers’ street address and phone number; cellular phones do not.  Currently, less than 40% of all wireless 911 calls give an accurate location within 50 feet of the caller and very few provide vertical data which would indicate what floor of a building the caller is on.

But TURN research director Regina Costa said “At its best the GPS won’t be as reliable as your land line in emergencies” Costa said. If the GPS satellites can’t “see” your phone the satellite will not be able to locate you.

Portable interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services can be used from virtually any Internet connection anywhere, which raises challenges for the emergency services community in determining the location of a 911 call. VoIP 911 calls may not connect to 911, or may  ring to the administrative line of the call center, which may not be staffed after hours, or by trained 911 operators. VoIP 911 calls do not automatically transmit the user’s phone number and/or location information. VoIP service may not work during a power outage, or when the Internet connection fails or becomes overloaded.

911 for subscribers of VoIP service (recommended by the FCC)
If you have or are thinking of subscribing to an interconnected VoIP service, you should:

  • Provide your physical address to your VoIP service provider to ensure that emergency services can quickly be dispatched to your location.
  • Promptly update your address information in the event of a change.
  • Have a clear understanding of any limitations of your 911 service.
  • Inform children, babysitters and visitors about your VoIP service and its 911 limitations, if any.
  • If your power is out or your Internet connection is down, be aware that your VoIP service may not work. Consider installing a backup power supply, maintaining a traditional phone line or having a wireless phone as a backup.
  • If you have questions about whether the phone service you are receiving is an interconnected VoIP service, contact your service provider for further information.

(Updated July 2016)