As of New Year’s Day 2015, anyone in Newfoundland and Labrador will be able to dial 911 and reach a human being.
It is a basic service, one all political parties agree is necessary for the province, as it plays catch up with much of the rest of Canada on emergency communications.
Two call centres
Thursday morning, the minister responsible for Fire and Emergency Services, Dan Crummell, said the province will have two call centres for 911 — one in St. John’s, serving the Avalon Peninsula, and one in Corner Brook, connecting callers everywhere else.
The existing City of St. John’s call centre will expand its reach. And a new call centre is being established in Corner Brook, with the City of Corner Brook hiring eight to 12 staff for the centre “in the coming months.”
Led by a board of directors, a new NL 911 Bureau, not yet fully up and running, will oversee the provision of the service.
Ultimately, the convenience of 911 will be brought into the hands of the estimated 60 per cent of the population still reliant, when without cellphone access, on direct numbers for emergency calls.
“911 doesn’t preclude someone from calling their local fire, ambulance or police detachment (directly) if they know the seven- or 10-digit emergency number but, if a house has to be evacuated in the middle of the night because of a fire and there is no time to find the number of the fire department, if a child is the only one who can call an ambulance and they can‘t read the 10 digit number or correctly dial it in the urgency of the moment; if a visitor to an area needs help or if a resident of the province is unsure which fire or ambulance service provides assistance to the area in which an incident has occurred or if any one of us can‘t remember a local emergency number during the panic of an serious incident, 911 is available,” summarized consultants with Pomax Inc., in a March 2012 report to the province, delving into universal 911.
The service will be paid for with a monthly fee applied to every phone bill. That fee is yet to be finalized, but the government has committed it will be less than $1.
“Overall, it’s a good news story for the province. This is a significant step forward in ensuring that we have 911 throughout the province,” said Liberal Tom Osborne, who was on hand at Confederation Building for the update on basic 911.
“The drawbacks are only two call centres,” he said.
Osborne compared the lack of a call centre in Labrador to the province’s loss of the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s for emergency response.
NDP MHA George Murphy similarly questioned the fact there will be no 911 call centre in Labrador, given the RNC currently operate a pocket 911 service in Labrador West.
“I think Labrador is being left out here. I think it’s kind of important. I think that there’s an awful lot of responsibility placed on the Corner Brook centre,” he said.
Both men argued it risks miscommunications.
And yet, calls made in Labrador by cell phone to 911, outside of Labrador West, are already dealt with by the RCMP call centre on the island. And there have been miscommunications in the existing pocket 911 systems.
As TC Media reported in a story first published in The Western Star, a two- or three-minute response on a fire call was extended to 10 minutes after a dispatcher at a regional call centre in Corner Brook sent firefighters to Westview Avenue in that city, as opposed to West Avenue.
The same RNC-staffed call centre had not long before sent responders to Commerce Court, as opposed to “the commerce building,” according to the report.
Crummell said the new basic 911 system will not be a final stop and the service will be improved in future. The province will immediately begin work on an enhanced and then advanced 911 system — first with dispatchers directly obtaining detailed information from callers and then adding the ability to locate distressed callers through their cellphones and advanced locating systems.
That step will require work on the part of municipalities and the creation and collection of set, civic addresses.
“An enhanced 911 system requires civic addressing to function,” stated the 2012 Pomax report. “Without civic addressing, no matter how robust the telephone or (responder) technology, calls for assistance from a wireline telephone would not transmit an address. Therefore, an important part of preparing for an enhanced system will be ensuring accurate civic addressing.”