Can You Call 911 On The Computer?

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by Jack Taylor | Last Updated:  February 3, 2019

When the 9-1-1 emergency system was first introduced back in 1968, it was built based on the landline telephone system.  At that time, over  90% of all Americans already had a landline telephone in their homes.  Technology has changed so much since 1968, especially in the last 30 years with the advent of the internet and cell phones.  But, can you call 9-1-1 on the computer today?

It is possible to call a 911 operator from your computer, assuming your Internet Service Provider has assigned a telephone number to your computer.  Without a soft-phone application from your ISP, the 911 Operator will not be able to pinpoint your location without you telling them of your address.

The 911 emergency telephone system was entirely based on the landline.  Yep, telephone polls.  At the time, there was no internet, cellphones, or computers for that matter, at least not like we think of computers today.  Given how much has changed in technology since then, is the landline 911 emergency system a viable solution today?

The History Of 911

In 1937, Great Britain was the first country to establish a national emergency number (999). They instituted this emergency system after five people died in a fire.  America’s first implemented the 911 emergency system in Haleyville, Alabama.

Bell System set up a central office was set up by the Bell System to develop the infrastructure for the system.  On February 16, 1968, the country’s first 911 call was made there in Haleyville, Alabama by Senator Rankin Fite.  The Alabama Telephone Company carried the call, and a week later, Nome, Alaska, implemented their 911 system.  Shortly thereafter, Congress passed legislation where 911 became the official emergency number standard for the entire country.  It became the exclusive number for any emergency calling service nation wide.

911 systems quickly spread across the country and by 1979, 26% of the population within the United States had 911 service.  By 1987, nearly half of the united stated, (50%), had 911 service by 1987.  That number grew to 93% by 1999.  Not bad, considering that 97.6% of households had a landline in their home by the year 2000.

The 911 system has worked for nearly 50 years.  Clearly, the infrastructure that the 911 emergency system was based on expanded and adapted as new technology was introduced.  In the 1990’s, the internet became mainstream, and today it’s everywhere, available on everything from computers to cellphones, to the watch you wear.

The 911 emergency system infrastructure has indeed changed with the times.  For example, there are more people today with cell phones than there are households that have landlines.

As of May, 2017, 50.8% of people in the United Stated only had a cell phone as their primary form of cummunication.  The remaining 49.2% still used traditional landlines that plug into a wall. That’s 2.5 percentage points higher than the year before.  Today those numbers are even higher.

Can’t I Call 911 via VoIP On My Computer?

The FCC (Federal Communications Commission), Regulations state that they have to be able to pinpoint the exact location of the 911 caller to within 300 yards.  The problem, however, is that currently they are not able to pinpoint an IP address to within 300 yards, at least not yet.

Cell phone carriers in the United States are required to comply with FCC regulations.  VoIP-based apps, (Voice Over Internet Protocol), such as Skype, Google Voice, WhatsApp, etc. are not required to comply with FCC, and as a result, you will not be able to use VoIP apps on your mobile phone to make emergency calls because 911 will be unable to pinpoint your exact location.

The reason that this happens is because the FCC registers the Internet Service Provider’s default address and not the end user’s computer´s location.  For example, my ISP’s headquarters is located in Princeton, New Jersey.  That’s 58 miles from where I live.  That’s not going to help the 911 operator if I call from my computer and can’t speak, but need assistance.

Are there any circumstances in which you could call 911 from a computer? Well, technically, yes. There are applications called soft-phones. It’s a software program that turns your computer into a telephone. So, if you have a soft-phone and a telephone service that has provided you with a telephone number for your computer, then yes, you can call 911 from your computer. But that’s a lot of hoops to jump through to get it to work. Why not just pick up your cell phone and call 911?

Can You Call 911 From Your Cell Phone?

Yes, you can call 911 from your cell phone, but if possible, use a landline.  When you dial 911 on a landline, the telephone grid routes the call to the correct dispatch center, where the 911 system tells the dispatcher your address, which helps speed up the process of getting the emergency responders to the scene.

But when you use a cellphone, it tries to connect to the nearest cell tower to your location, which just might not be near your location.  Cellphone technology does not always provide your precise location to the 911 dispatch operator.  Those who are able to figure out you are in another jurisdiction can forward the call to the right 911 dispatch center.

But in an emergency, any delay has the potential of being deadly.  So, when the 911 Dispatch operator asks for your exact address, they are not trying to “chit-chat”.  They are trying to ensure that the right emergency crew will arrive to your location in record time.

You can even call 911 from a locked iPhone. To do this, simply pick up any iPhone, (even if it is not yours, and it is locked).
Tap Emergency link at the bottom left of the screen to open the iPhone Emergency Call screen. This will then allow you to use the dial pad to call 911.

Can I Text 911 For Emergency Assistance?

Always try to call 911 from a landline or wireless phone. If text-to-911 services are not available in your area, you should receive a bounce-back message from your wireless provider telling you that the message was not delivered. Check here to see if text-to-911 services are available in your area.

Remember the rule of thumb is to call 911. Texting is for situations when it would be dangerous or impossible to speak to the call taker.  For example, if you are hiding in a closet so that an intruder can’t find you, and you fear that if you speak, they might hear you.  Just be sure that if you do text the 991 operator, text, “This is an emergency.  I am located at [enter the address]”.  This will guarantee that an officer will be dispatched immediately.  If it’s an emergency that requires an ambulance or fire-department, then text that to them as well.

If your cell phone has been suspended due to non-payment, you can still place a 9-1-1 phone call because wireless carriers are required by law to complete 911 calls. However, if your phone isn’t activated, (meaning that there is no phone number assigned to it), the 9-1-1 operator will not know the number for which you are calling from. This is why the first thing they ask is “What is your Emergency?” The next thing they do is confirm the phone number from which you are calling. If there is no phone number assigned to the cell phone, and you happen to get disconnected for any reason, the 911 dispatch operator will not be able to call you back. You will need to call them back.

Why was 911 chosen as the Emergency Phone Number?

In 1967, the FCC met with AT&T to establish an emergency number. Obviously, they wanted a number that was short and easy to remember. But it had to be a unique number, something that would not be mistaken, and since the area code 911 was not in use, that was the number they chose.

Conclusion

Using a computer to call 911 is like using a bicycle to get to work.  You can do it, but only if you are using a phone number that your ISP has assigned to your computer.  Though the 911 emergency system was built back in 1968, it has evolved over time to allow for newer technologies through the years.  We should have every confidence that it will continue to evolve with technologies of the future.


Related Questions

What should I do if I accidentally dial 911?
If you happen to dial 911 by mistake, or if your child dials 911 when there is no emergency, don’t hang up.  If you hang up, that 911 operator might think that there is a real emergency, and they might send an officer to your location.  Simply explain to the 9-1-1 operator what happened.

How can I prevent my child from accidentally dialing 911?
It is imperative as a parent, that you teach your kids what 9-1-1 is and how to use it.  You should teach them at the same time that you teach them their home address and phone number.  For more information, visit 911 for Kids.

What happens when you call 911?
–  They will ask for the location of the emergency, including the street address.
–  They will ask you for the phone number you are calling from.
–  They will ask you about the nature of the emergency.
–  They will then ask for the details about the emergency.

Jack has been helping people with computers needs for several years, and he loves to help people succeed. He brings a wealth of wisdom and insight from an entrepreneur's perspective and enjoys freelance writing. In fact, when he's not writing an article or working on his YouTube channel, you might find him binge-watching Suits or formatting his computer . . . again, just for fun. To learn more about Jack, click here.