When is it safe to cut the cord?

As parents, we often hear the phrase “cut the cord.” It’s a topic that comes up time and time again.  When do we leave our child with the first babysitter?  When are they old enough to ride around the neighborhood on their bicycle?  But today I thought I’d talk about a cord that a lot of us are thinking of cutting or have already cut: the cord to our wireline telephone at home.

People will often consider cost, convenience, or the disturbing amount of dust gathering on that 20th Century relic.  But today, let’s consider the special relationship that this phone has to the safety of your children.  Specifically, let’s talk about 9-1-1.

9-1-1 service in the United States was born about six months before I was, in February of 1968.  The Haleyville, Alabama Police Department took that first historic call.  (Mark Fletcher wrote a great blog post about it, if you’re interested).  About forty years later, I had the excitement of being part of the first text message to 9-1-1. But that’s a story for another day (and a different blog).

When 9-1-1 was first deployed, it was pretty simple: the local telephone switch recognized that the first 3 digits were 9-1-1, and (physically!) connected the caller’s telephone circuit to a circuit at the local police station (or other answering point).  As the telephone network increased in complexity, and because it became important not only to get the call, but know who and where the caller was, a new system called “Enhanced 9-1-1″ was created.  Using 1960′s vintage long-distance dialing technology as the foundation, E9-1-1 not only delivered the call, but the number of the caller.  (This was called Automatic Number Identification, or ANI.)  The local 9-1-1 center would then use a data circuit (1200 baud leased lines, if you’re wondering) to get the address of the caller through a system called Automatic Location Information (ALI).  Amazingly, this system is still in use today, and we’re only now beginning to see the first trials of “Next Generation 9-1-1 (NG9-1-1).”  You might notice the name of our company – yes, we’re a part of that, too…

Why does this all matter?  Because until NG9-1-1 is in place across the country (which is still years away for most of us), all these modern technologies to which we’ve become accustomed (like cellphones) have been squeezed into that 1960′s vintage network.  Although some really smart people have figured out ways to make it work pretty well in many ways, there is one way in which a wireline phone and a cellular phone are incredibly different: location.  Wireline phones (including “plain old telephone service,” Voice over IP, and service provided over cable TV lines) are associated with your physical address.  Cellular phones, on the other hand, can be anywhere.  So when you dial 9-1-1 on a cellphone, the 9-1-1 center only knows the general area from which the call came from.  Initially, that can be anything within a many-mile radius, although the FCC requires that within a short period of time, the phone must be located to within about 150-900 feet, depending on the type of phone.  It turns out, that’s really not nearly good enough if the caller is a small child.

So what does a resourceful 9-1-1 dispatcher do when a child calls 9-1-1 from a cellphone and doesn’t know their address.  They do this: “Honey, go open your front door.  Stand at the door with it open and listen for the sirens.”  Then, as a police car or ambulance drives up and down the streets with their siren blasting, the dispatcher says “louder, louder, louder, softer, softer” until they find the right street.

Even though it’s rare, sometimes children do need to call 9-1-1.  Dispatchers can do amazing things and our children can do amazing things when they need to.  But sometimes, our job is to keep them from having to be heroic in extraordinary circumstances.  So before you cut the cord, make sure to think about these things:

  • Can your child dial 9-1-1 from your smartphone? (unlock it, find the phone number-pad, dial 9-1-1, and hit send?)
  • Does your child know your address?  Will they be able to tell it to the 9-1-1 dispatcher when they are panicking?
  • Is the cellphone always somewhere where your child can find it?
  • Is the cellphone always charged?

If you can’t answer yes to all of these questions, maybe think about keeping that wireline phone one more year.


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