We asked the experts how to reach 911 in the event of a similar fiasco at Rogers. It starts with a paper clip
If you had a safety pin or paper clip, you might have been able to use your cell phone to reach 911 during the Rogers outage after all, simply by removing the SIM card from your phone.
Wireless devices are supposed to be able to make emergency calls even if your service provider is down. But that didn’t work for Rogers customers (or its Fido and Chatr customers) during the widespread internet and mobile network disruption that began last Friday.
Canada’s telecommunications regulator now wants to know how this was possible given operators’ obligations to ensure network resilience.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is demanding responses from Rogers, including information on the exact number of 911 calls that were made but could not be completed.
The company said the outage was caused by a problem in its core network, the central part of its system that processes data and communicates with the wider internet.
But the company’s radio network cell towers still seemed to communicate with users’ phones, said Samer Bishay, CEO of Ice Wireless, which provides mobile service in parts of the North.
Even though the towers were picking up signals, 911 calls could not be answered because the core network was down, he said. « The network was in a state of uncertainty. »
Pulling out a SIM card — which connects your phone to your specific carrier — could have bypassed the Rogers network and left the phone searching for a signal from another provider, Bishay said.
« Your phone should be able to call 911 without a SIM card, » said cybersecurity and technology analyst Ritesh Kotak, who added that it’s hard to know for sure if it would have worked during the outage without testing it.
« But in theory, it’s still supposed to work, » Kotak said, noting that there’s a page on Rogers’ website that reads, « You can call 911 ANY time, with or without a card. SIM ».
The CRTC has given Rogers until July 22 to answer dozens of questions about the outage, including nearly 20 questions about access to 911 and emergency services during the disruption.
In a new letter to customers on Wednesday, Rogers CEO Tony Staffieri said the company « will implement what is necessary to ensure that 911 and essential services can continue regardless of any outage that may occur. » .
How to remove a SIM card anyway?
Removing a SIM (which stands for Subscriber Identity Module) card from your phone might not be a priority when you’re in panic mode, Bishay said. « Even as a telecommunications expert, I probably would have forgotten to do that. »
So it’s worth thinking about when you’re not stressed, and Kotak said it’s not that hard.
« Remove the case from your phone, take a safety pin or paper clip, locate the SIM card tray, which is on the side of the phone. You would then insert the pin into the small hole next to the tray, it will eject the tray and the SIM card will no longer be in the phone.
Some people also keep old cell phones that are no longer connected to a carrier on hand for emergencies. If you keep them charged, they can still make 911 calls if they can get a signal from any carrier. (In 2017, the Nova Scotia RCMP warned that youths were making nuisance calls to 911 using a disabled phone.)
What if it didn’t work?
“If you have internet at home, you can call through an app on your computer, like Skype,” said Holly Barkwell, Canada regional director for the National Emergency Number Association, a 911 policy group. She added that if you call 911 through an app, it’s unlikely to include the same location information as if you were calling from your cell phone.
This means that you will need to provide detailed information about your location so that the call center can direct your call to the nearest first responders.
It also means that you might be better off with a different internet provider than your mobile carrier. The Rogers outage has caused many people to reconsider the benefits of bundling all of their telecommunications services.
“Dropping the landlines was a big step forward. Yes, the digital environment provides enhanced service, but you should always have a backup plan,” Barkwell said. As well as switching telecom providers, she suggests finding out who your neighbors are using, so you’re aware of alternatives in the area if a carrier is missing.
Can you reach 911 by email?
During the Rogers outage, Thunder Bay police created a 911 email address.
This was only a temporary measure, but in the future you should be able to reach emergency responders in new ways.
Canada’s telecommunications companies are beginning to deploy next-generation 911 service, based on an IP network rather than the legacy phone system. It will support features like real-time messaging with call center operators on digital platforms.
It should also allow users to send videos and photos and provide enhanced location information, but the next-generation 911 isn’t expected to be fully functional until 2025.
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