Canada's telecommunications regulator is investigating after a Calgary family's 911 call using an internet phone service resulted in an ambulance being dispatched in the wrong city.

"We're looking to obtain at least the confirmation of the tape recording of the 911 call to make sure that the proper steps were followed. Until that happens, I'd like to keep all comments to myself at this point," CRTC spokesman Paul Godin said.

Possible 911 limitations using VoIP

  • Call may be patched to the wrong 911 centre or a non-emergency line causing a response delay.
  • If a caller is unable to speak, or if the call is disconnected, the operator may not have automatic location information.
  • Power failure or disrupted internet connection can disconnect access to 911 service.
  • VoIP services do not have to enlist the use of interpretation services that exist in cities like Calgary, Toronto, or Vancouver.

Source: City of Toronto

According to rules set out by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, internet phone companies must explain to subscribers how the 911 service works when they sign up and remind them about it once a year, Godin said.

Any 911 calls made with Voice over Internet Protocol technology, or VoIP, cannot be automatically tracked because there is no physical address that can be linked to the digital signal, thus the need for call centre operators to manually reroute the calls to local 911 operators.

In comparison, emergency calls made on analog land lines are answered by 911 operators in the area and automatically have addresses and phone numbers attached to them.

Elijah Luck's aunt tried to call 911 on Tuesday night when the 18-month-old baby went into medical distress. Their internet phone service provider, Comwave, did not patch their call through to Calgary's emergency centre.

cgy-elijah-luck

Elijah Luck, who was born premature, went into medical distress and died on Tuesday night. An ambulance was dispatched to help him, but in the wrong province. ((Luck family))

Instead, Comwave's call centre operator dispatched an ambulance to the Luck family's former home in Mississauga, Ont., the last address the company had on file.

The family said they waited for more than half an hour before they used a neighbour's land line to call 911 again. An ambulance arrived less than six minutes later. Elijah Luck died at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

"When you're using that technology and you place a 911 call, the first question to ask is 'where are you calling from?' because the technology does not provide you with an instant address of the location where you are calling from, so we want to make sure that those particular processes that are in place were followed," Godin said.

Toronto emergency officials issued a public safety advisory on Friday reminding consumers of the limitations of VoIP in accessing 911 during an emergency.

Bruce Farr, president of a national group of emergency medical services providers, said changes need to be made to internet phones to make them work better on 911 calls.

"The service providers and the federal government need to look very seriously at how they can make improvements in the system and make sure that they operate more in a fixed mode so that people will know the difference," said Farr, who heads the EMS Chiefs of Canada. "Or at the very least, you know, there should be a serious notice within the purchase process that says 'buy it for this use, but if you need help in an emergency, don't rely on this phone.' "