Internet phone company investigates failed 911 dispatch

The internet phone company that dispatched an ambulance to the wrong address after a 911 call to help a sick baby says users are responsible for keeping their emergency information updated.

The internet phone company that dispatched an ambulance to the wrong address after a 911 call from a frantic Calgary family is reviewing its tapes, but said subscribers are responsible for keeping their emergency information updated.

"In terms of communication, clearly something happened," Alison George, spokeswoman for Comwave, told CBC News Thursday.

Eighteen-month-old Elijah Luck died Tuesday night after his family called 911 for help. Because they use an internet provider for their phone service, the call was answered by a centre in Ontario, and not the emergency dispatch centre in Calgary.

"He started becoming purple and blue in his face and his body was getting limp, so immediately I called 911," Elijah's aunt Sylvia Luck recalled Thursday. "When I called 911, it had gone to five rings but nobody answered the phone."

George said an operator at Comwave's contracted call centre in Concord, Ont., called back to ask if they needed help. Luck said she pleaded for an ambulance and gave their Calgary address, under the impression that help was on the way.

Instead, the call centre dispatched an ambulance to the Lucks' former home in Mississauga, the last address on file with the company.

"At this point, they felt they had sent it to the correct location. At this point, the call was considered completed, from what I understand," said George.

"Either they didn't get the entire address or part of the address was given and the call was disconnected or hung up."

Luck said after waiting for about half an hour, she ran next door to call 911 on a neighbour's land line. An ambulance arrived less than six minutes later.

Elijah Luck, who was born premature with fluid in his lungs and a weakened heart, was not breathing when paramedics arrived. He died later at the Alberta Children's Hospital.

His family wonders if the delay reduced Elijah's chances of surviving and are speaking out to warn others who use the Voice over Internet Protocol telephone technology, known as VoIP.

"Our hearts go out to people to be aware of what had happened and how we lost this life, so we want them to know, you know, check before you take any connection," said Elijah's aunt.

Call centres, not emergency dispatch, answer VoIP calls

The Luck family began using Comwave's internet phone service about three years ago, after they moved from Mississauga, Ont., to Calgary. VoIP allows phone calls to be made over a broadband internet connection instead of a costlier analog phone line.

In 911 situations, there is no way to track a call made over broadband because there is no physical address that can be linked to the digital signal, as there is with a land line.

"We don't have the immediate ability to geographically locate people using services other than your standard telephone," Curtis Brochu, manager of Calgary's public safety communications, said Thursday.

911 calls made from traditional phones go directly to a local emergency dispatch centre, while ones made over VoIP rely on third-party call centres.

In 2005, Comwave made it mandatory for its users to fill out an online form that acknowledged they understood the 911 protocol over VoIP, as well as provide emergency information, before their services could be activated, said George.

It's up to subscribers to ensure the company has up-to-date contact information, she said.

"People have been using voice over IP now for many years and the basic 911 system that is in place that's part of the regulations has been working very, very well," said John Lange, president of the Canadian Association of VoIP Providers.

"In this particular instance, it seems that perhaps there was something that just didn't go quite right. It may or may not turn out to be anything to do with the way 911 was implemented in that particular company."

Elijah's six-year-old sister, Pearl, has been wondering when her little brother will be coming back from the hospital, said Sylvia Luck.

"Because every time he was in the hospital, he always came back so she still has the hope that he'll come back. But her dad explained to her that he would not be back with us."

With files from Zulekha Nathoo