We asked the experts how you can reach 911 in the event of a similar Rogers fiasco. It starts with a paper clip

If you had a safety pin or a paper clip, you might have been able to use your cellphone to reach 911 during the Rogers outage after all — simply by popping the SIM card out of your phone.

Wireless devices are supposed to be able to place emergency calls even if your service provider is down. But that didn’t work for Rogers (or its Fido and Chatr) customers during the widespread internet and mobile network disruption that began last Friday.

Canada’s telecom regulator now wants to know how that was possible considering obligations carriers have to ensure network resiliency.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is demanding answers from Rogers, including information about exactly how many 911 calls were made but could not be completed.

The company has indicated 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 cell towers in the company’s radio network appeared to still be communicating 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 completed because the central network was down, he said. “The network was in a limbo state.”

Popping out a SIM card — which connects your phone to your specific carrier — could have bypassed the Rogers network and let the phone search for a signal from another provider, Bishay said.

“Your phone should be able to call 911 without a SIM card,” said Ritesh Kotak, a cybersecurity and technology analyst, who added that it’s difficult to know for sure if that would have worked during the outage without having tested it.

“But in theory it’s still supposed to work,” Kotak said, noting that there’s a page on the Rogers website that reads, “You can call 911 at ANY time, with or without a SIM card.”

The CRTC has given Rogers until July 22 to answer dozens of questions about the outage, including almost 20 queries 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 needed to ensure that 911 and essential services can continue, no matter what outage may occur.”

How do you take a SIM card out anyway?

Removing a SIM (which stands for subscriber identity module) card from your phone might not be top of mind when you’re in panic mode, Bishay said. “Even as a telco expert, I would have probably forgotten to do that.”

So it’s worth thinking about when you’re not under stress, and Kotak said it’s not that tricky.

“Take off the case of your phone, get 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 little 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 cellphones that are no longer connected to a carrier on hand for emergencies. If you keep them charged, they can still place 911 calls if they can get a signal from any carrier. (In 2017, the Nova Scotia RCMP warned that youth were placing nuisance calls to 911 using a deactivated phone.)

What if that didn’t work?

“If you have home internet, you can call through an app on your computer, such as Skype,” said Holly Barkwell, Canada region director for the National Emergency Number Association, a 911 policy group. She added that if you called 911 through an app, it’s not likely to include the same location information that calling from your cellphone would.

That means you will need to provide detailed information about where you are so the call centre can direct your call to the closest first responders.

It also means you might be better off having a different internet provider than your wireless carrier. The Rogers outage has prompted many to reconsider the benefits of bundling all of their telecom services.

“Giving up land lines was a big leap. Yes, the digital environment provides enhanced service, but you should always have a backup plan,” Barkwell said. On top of switching up telecom providers, she suggests finding out who your neighbours use, so you’re aware of the alternatives in the area if one carrier is out.

Could you reach 911 by email?

During the Rogers outage, the police in Thunder Bay set up a 911 email address.

That was just a temporary measure, but in the future you should be able to reach emergency responders in new ways.

Canada’s telecom companies are beginning to roll out next-generation 911 service, based on an IP network rather than the old phone system. It will support features such as real-time messaging with call centre operators over digital platforms.

It should also allow users to send videos and photos and provide enhanced location information, but next-gen 911 is not expected to be fully functional until 2025.

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