In the wake of an 18-month-old's death last week in Calgary, experts are telling Canadians to take a closer look at their internet phone services and reconsider the old-fashioned land line.

Tom Keenan, a professor in the University of Calgary's department of computer science, says land line telephones are more reliable than internet services for 911 calls.

He told CBC News that he recommends people with small children or elderly parents go with a land line instead of voice-over-internet protocol (VoIP) for their telephone.

"I think there are some people who are reconsidering VoIP service now. They probably weren't aware of the limitations," Keenan said. 

"In particular, if you have very young children or an elderly parent who wouldn't be able to explain where they are and what their emergency is, it might be safer to have a good old traditional land line, or at least something else that connects you directly to the public service answering point."

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

Calls made with VoIP cannot be automatically tracked because there is no physical address linked to the signal. As a result, call centre operators must manually reroute the calls to local 911 operators.

Emergency calls made on land lines are answered by local 911 operators and automatically have addresses and phone numbers attached to them, making it easier to dispatch an ambulance or other emergency vehicle.

"If somebody uses a VoIP service and they have basic 911, what happens is that they have to have a conversation with somebody. There are people who are too young or too disabled to speak. There are people who don't speak English. So it might well be problematic for somebody to explain where they are, and you can't send the ambulance if you don't know where they are," Keenan said.

Last Tuesday, 18-month-old Elijah Luck went into medical distress and his aunt dialed 911 on the family's internet phone.

Their internet phone service provider, Comwave, did not patch their call through to Calgary's emergency centre. 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.

Elijah died in hospital later that night. His funeral was scheduled for Monday.

Keenan said that people tend not to read the fine print when they sign up with a phone service provider, but urged them to look into their service now and change it if necessary.

Check power outage plans

Jody Robertson with E-Comm, southwestern B.C.'s emergency communications provider, agrees. She said internet phone users need to know if their company transfers 911 calls to an out-of-province call centre.

Additionally, Robertson said, users need to know how their provider will handle emergency calls during a power outage. She also warned that cellphone users can be at risk because mobile phones don't display the location of the caller.

Alberta internet phone user Darrel Silver told CBC News that if he had children, he would consider returning to land line service.

Silver double-checked the 911 service with his internet phone provider as a result of last week's events.

"I mean, you've got to look at what you're paying for and find out what is included in your plan — especially 911 — because it could be a life or death situation where you need that 911," said Silver, who gave up his land line more than two years ago.

"If you don't know what you're paying for, you could get into lots of trouble."

Statistics Canada says roughly 11 per cent of Alberta households do not have a land line, and three per cent of these only have cable or VoIP phones. In B.C., 13.1 per cent of households rely on cable or VoIP phones.

With files from the Canadian Press