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Internet-based phone services  are becoming more popular, but those switching over from traditional phone service plans may not be aware of the emergency call delays.

“During an emergency, time is priceless for someone who is hoping help is on the way,” said Peel Regional Police constable, Iryna Yashnyk.

Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) allows for people to make phone calls through apps at no charge, and is Canada’s largest alternative to conventional landlines. With a wireless network connection, users can contact others through apps such as WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and FaceTime.

At Ryerson, this trend is quickly being adopted. Hadie Mo, a fifth-year biomedical student said, “I live downtown and have a lot of expenses to pay, so I use apps on my cellphone to make calls to help save money.”

According to the CRTC, about 28,000 public places in Canada offer free Wi-Fi, and most homes in the country have up to six routers. But Yashnyk said it is not reasonable for people to solely rely on Internet connections, as there are many ways it could fail.

Factors that affect Internet connection include power outages, lagged connection or dead device battery.

“Any calls made through Wi-Fi do not give us information on the address, which causes delays in locating a person in the case of an emergency,” said Yashnyk. “We sometimes need to check multiple addresses before locating the person and that also increases response time.”

When a 911 call is made via Internet apps, the caller will be connected to the VoIP service provider’s call centre, which could be located in a different city or country. The call must then be redirected to the appropriate 911 centre, with a response team then being dispatched from there. This process of rerouting the call can result in delays, since the service provider may forward the caller’s emergency request to a non-emergency number, or the call centre may fail to adequately locate the person in need.

“It is important to know the limitations within every app,” said Yashnyk. “There are multiple ways of locating someone during an emergency, and we of course, would not stop until we check on the wellbeing, but it all takes time.”

As noted in a document released by the Ontario 9-1-1 Advisory Board, traditional 911 systems based on the use of landlines makes sure that the user’s emergency call will automatically go to the correct 911 centre. It also ensures that the call will provide automatic address and telephone information so that in scenarios where a caller may be non-verbal, help will still be able to be dispatched to the scene.

“If my connection was to go down in an emergency situation, I guess I would have to find the nearest person to make the call for me,” said Mo.

When asked if calls can be tracked by enabled location services available through cell phones, Yashnyk said it is always important for people to know their own location since some apps may not be updated, and to never assume that someone else has contacted emergency services.

“You’d be surprised how many people call their partner, parents, or friends before calling us,” she said.  

Consumers can purchase a VoIP adapter to connect with their Internet, but in that case they still require telephone, as well as ethernet cables and a landline phone to function in their home.  

Renisha Inthiraj, a fourth-year business management student, has both landline and cellular service phone plans.

“I am against the idea of saving money by using Internet based phone service,” she said.”It is highly unreliable, especially when it comes to emergencies and I would not want to risk it.”

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