By the end of the year, every phone in the province will be able to call 911 and get emergency assistance, according to Municipal Affairs Minister Steve Kent.
The service will likely cost less than a dollar per month on your phone bill.
Kent started debate in the legislature this week on a new law that will create an arm’s-length government agency which will set up and administer provincewide 911 service, and collect a levy on all phone bills to pay for the service.
Right now, about 40 per cent of the landline phones in the province are covered by 911 — in the capital city region, Corner Brook and Labrador West — and every cellphone already has 911 access.
The plan is to expand 911 to everyone else. The call centre in St. John’s will handle the Avalon Peninsula, and a call centre in Corner Brook will handle everything on the other side of the isthmus, including most of Labrador. Labrador West will likely still handle its own calls.
On its own, Kent said, the provincewide 911 service won’t make response times faster or slower, but it’s the first step towards a bigger goal — enhanced, next-generation 911 service that will include location information, the option for text messaging and other functions.
“This service will be flexible, responding to changing technologies,” Kent said at the announcement Tuesday. “The part I’m really excited about is moving towards next-generation 911. Most jurisdictions in the country are not there yet — they’re working towards it — but we have to build the foundation first.”
Both opposition parties said they had questions, but would support the move to provincewide 911.
Liberal MHA Eddie Joyce wondered what kinds of fees would be charged to businesses with a whole lot of phone lines, and he worried that if the 911 levy generates more revenue than the service needs, the government will just transfer the extra cash into the general coffers.
New Democrat MHA George Murphy was skeptical about just two call centres; he said he thinks the province will need more to ensure the necessary local knowledge from the people answering the phones.
“We have god only knows how many Seal Coves in this province, how many Capelin Coves. There are questions to be asked around that,” he said. “The Corner Brook call centre is going to handle every single call from coastal Labrador to as far east as Sunnyside right here on the isthmus of the Avalon.”
But Churence Rogers, speaking on behalf of the Federation of Municipalities, said that communities across the province are excited about the expansion of service.
Rogers said that nothing will change for people in the cities, but it will be a major benefit for rural parts of the province, and it will be particularly good for tourists who don’t have the local fire department number memorized.
“If there’s a major issue, they don’t know who to call. But the 911 service will make that a universal number, and we think that’s a real plus,” he said.
“Forty per cent of the people in this province already have this service. For rural Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s a step forward in my view.”