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Internet phone company sounds 911 alarm Add to ...

The president of an Internet-based phone service says the industry must act to prevent a repeat of the tragedy in which a Calgary toddler died after a 911 call placed through the service sent an ambulance to the wrong city.

Unlike traditional fixed-line telephones, where a 911 operator is able to see a caller's address, users of voice-over- Internet-protocol (VoIP) phones have to register their addresses for 911 purposes and their calls are routed through a company call centre.

Last week, the system failed. Eighteen-month-old Elijah Luck died when an ambulance was dispatched to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga, where the Lucks used to live, rather than the family's current home in Calgary.

Customers have to change their addresses for 911 purposes. The Lucks had changed their billing address but not their 911 location.

"For me, it was a shock," said Jude D'Souza, a Luck family friend, on learning that phone company Comwave Telecom Inc. had the family's current address for bills but not for 911. "They're more interested in getting the money. I hope they go back into the whole setup, look at their procedures and see where they need to improve."

About 250,000 people in Canada use VoIP.

Rules governing 911 services on Internet-based telephones are more strict in the U.S. than in Canada, where the federal telecommunications regulator requires companies to tell customers only about the "characteristics and limitations" of the emergency service.

In 2005, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission issued a ruling on VoIP and 911, requiring sellers of the service to inform their consumers about the limitations "through various methods of communications." The options include TV, radio and websites, as well as warning stickers for telephone handsets. Companies have to communicate the limitations at least once a year.

Though rules in the United States are similar, they are more stringent. VoIP companies "must distribute" warning stickers to customers, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Companies must also obtain acknowledgment that customers understand the limitations.

Comwave president Yuval Barzakay said it is important for VoIP customers to know that a billing address will not necessarily be considered the 911 address, and that the average customer typically changes his 911 address twice.

"While we don't want to blame anyone, because this was a tragedy, the fact of the matter is this is more about educating consumers," Mr. Barzakay said yesterday.

The Lucks had made Calgary their billing address but not their 911 location. Mr. Barzakay said an option is available on the Comwave website where customers can check their bills and change phoning features. "The last time we checked, on Friday, [the Lucks's]911 address was still Mississauga."

He added: "The industry needs to come together so this kind of tragedy never happens again." The CRTC, he said, should push new technology to more easily locate VoIP users.

The commission says that push is in process. "We're working on enhancing the system and making it better all the time," said Paul Godin, a spokesman for the regulator.

Mr. Godin said the CRTC is doing an economic viability study, and infrastructure will also need to be changed. "That being said, [the changes]are going to go in place. It's just a question of when," he said.

Last week, the president of EMS Chiefs of Canada, which represents emergency medical service providers, called on the federal government and phone companies to reassess the current rules and system.

However, one telecommunications consultant said the most important thing is for customers to take individual responsibility and understand how their phones work. "I'm not sure more government regulation is the panacea," said Iain Grant of consultancy SeaBoard Group.

Elijah's funeral is set for today in Calgary.

Mr. D'Souza, the family friend, said the Lucks are fully focused on the funeral and have not thought about legal action. He would not say whether the family eventually plans to sue.

"I don't want to say yes and I don't want to say no to that right now."

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