The minister responsible for emergency services in Newfoundland and Labrador says he will introduce legislation in the House of Assembly next month which will bring the provincewide 911 service closer to becoming a reality.
Steve Kent, who is also Municipal Affairs minister, told The Telegram recently significant pro-gress has been made towards having the system up and running by the end of the year, but some of the logistics are still being worked out.
He said the project team put in place a few months ago is working on the legislation, regulations and governance structures as well as the creation of a 911 bureau and a board of directors and the hiring of staff.
The province is also getting the hardware and software needed for the service, setting up emergency response zones, negotiating agreements with telecommunication providers and establishing public safety answering points (PSAPs — call centres responsible for answering emergency calls).
“The legislation is a necessary piece that allows us to formalize some of those things,” said Kent.
“And there are some budget implications in terms of getting everything in place by December so I anticipate the upcoming budget will reflect that,” he said.
Only 40 per cent of the province’s population has 911 service, covering the St. John’s metro area, Corner Brook and western Labrador. However, cellphone users can access 911 from anywhere in the province, as long as they have reception.
While the initiative is a good start, says a veteran fireman, the basic 911 service is dated and limited in its capabilities.
Vince MacKenzie, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services, said the organization has been lobbying the provincial government to provide the service since 1995.
“It’s not going to improve the quality of fire services in the community. It’s not going to locate you. You will still have to be able to tell them where you are,” he said.
“So here we are now and the basic service is 20 years behind the technology,” said MacKenzie, who is also fire chief of the Grand Falls-Windsor fire department.
He said the public will have to be made aware of what the service can do verses what people’s expectations are.
MacKenzie said people who watch a lot of the American emergency shows have the false idea that when they call 911 the operator knows where they are calling from and if they collapse first responders will be able to find them.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.
“It doesn’t track the calls on a computer like the enhanced service or the next generation (of 911) which includes data. It will be like a middle man. If someone calls 911 someone will answer and direct their call,” said MacKenzie.
“I’d rather see the enhanced service. This is better than nothing, but it’s not the technology of the day. For the most part it won’t speed up fire departments, so it’s not a great benefit to the fire service, but it will be a benefit to the person who does not know their (emergency services) number,” he said.
The minister acknowledged the service’s limitations.
“While this initiative isn’t intended to improve response time on its own, we’re doing other things to improve response capabilities as well which has been reflected in the current budget and will be reflected in future budgets,” said Kent.
“What were really doing is laying the groundwork for next generation 911. This is a logical step towards that and that’s certainly a future goal for us,” he said.
According to a report by commissioner Timothy Denton wrote for the CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) in July 2013, he concluded the 911 system across the country is riddled with inadequacies — including technology gaps and inadequate funding.
Denton told the CRTC the system needs an overhaul as the world embraces wireless technology.
One of the areas Denton identified that needs work is public education.
“Today, the 911 system is working because first responders, PSAPs and telecommunications service providers make it work, not because the technology is flawless or its governance system adequate,” wrote Denton in the CRTC document called “A Report on Matters Related to Emergency 911.”
Denton said he had many discussions with individuals, groups and organizations involved in operating and maintaining the 911 system, as well as documented comments and he found there is a disconnect between Canadians’ expectations and the reality of the system.
He referenced a survey conducted in 2010 in which 98 per cent of respondents knew about 911; 76 per cent believed the PSAP would know where they are calling from; and 73 per cent believed 911 technology had the ability to find them if they could not speak.
When asked whether it would be more important for a PSAP to receive text messages, receive pictures or pinpoint the caller’s location, respondents overwhelmingly ranked pinpointing location as the most important.
“From the results of the Canadian survey, it is clear to me that Canadians have a high degree of misperception about the current 911 system and its capabilities. There is no question that educating Canadians is vital,” he wrote.
As for the service in Newfoundland and Labrador, Kent said the cost hasn’t been nailed down, but the fee is less than a dollar per phone line per month.