911 officials warn about Internet-based home phones

By Stacy

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- More people are using Internet-based phones to call 911, Charleston County officials said Wednesday. They wanted people to be aware of the risks, before it was too late.

Lathie Horton looked at photos of his late wife Margie.

"Margie and I didn't have any bad memories," he said.

In 2010, the Hortons were home when she had a heart attack. Lathie called 911. Officials said he used a Voice-over-Internet Protocol phone, commonly called VoIP. VOIP phones usually plug in to a computer or modem jack, officials said.

"The lady just kept on about your zip code. 'What is your zip code? I need your zip code,'" Lathie Horton said.

"It went to a VoIP call center somewhere in the U.S. Our first clue was he told us they asked for his zip code. That's something no one does in the 911 world," said James Lake, director of Charleston County's Consolidated 911 Center.

Horton said it took EMS 20 minutes to get to his home. The wait time proved too long for Margie; she died in the ambulance, he said.

The number of 911 callers using VoIP is steadily growing each month. In January of 2013, 810 of the calls received by dispatchers were via a VoIP phone, officials said. By December, dispatchers received 1,265 VoIP calls. Today, they made up about 5 percent of county 911 calls. But with that came a warning from officials: make sure you know your phone type and keep your company up-to-date on where you are.

"They then had to track down where he was to get the call to the correct location," Lake said. "Not having that address creates significant delays and potentially not getting help at all."

"It's one of those things that you know things are going to happen in life but you just don't expect til it happens. You keep hoping it never happens," Lathie Horton said.

Officials said VoIP phone users should contact their phone provider to make sure they have updated information and address.