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Changes Are Coming for 911 Calls Across BC

Next-generation emergency response will be IP-based, rather than landline-based.

Michelle Gamage 26 Sep 2023The Tyee

Michelle Gamage is The Tyee’s health reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

Get ready to be able to call, text or send videos to a 911 dispatcher when you need help, and have them know your exact location — including what floor of an apartment you’re on.

Canada is in the process of updating its 911 services to offer next-generation 911, which will be IP-based rather than landline-based, meaning cars, Apple watches and even cellphones without service will be able to contact emergency services. People will still be able to use landlines, and payphones, where available, to call 911.

Last Thursday, members of the Union of BC Municipalities sat down at their annual general meeting in Vancouver to discuss how they want to see NG911 rolled out across B.C.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission told telecommunication service providers to establish their NG911 networks by March 2022 and be ready to decommission the old 911 networks by March 2025.

The UBCM is asking the province to set up a funding structure for NG911 that would add a small fee to each cellphone user’s monthly bill, called a call-answer levy. The organization is also asking for a fourth emergency service to be added to 911 calls — mental health services, in addition to police, fire and ambulance.

Craig Hodge, councillor with the City of Coquitlam and chair of the community safety committee with UBCM, said a call-answer levy would range from $1 to $1.75 per user per month. The UBCM is asking for these fees to remain separate from general provincial revenue.

Adding mental health services to 911 would mean these calls would not be automatically sent to police, who sometimes “escalate the problem,” Hodge said.

Mental health services could send out peer-assisted care teams, Car 87 teams, where police and a registered nurse or a registered psychiatric nurse are dispatched together, or connect callers with a crisis centre, Hodge added.

Hodge said he’d recently read a report from peer-assisted teams in Victoria where out of 1,100 calls, fewer than 20 required police intervention.

“We want to move mental health calls away from police response and one of the best ways to do that is to split them off right at the start when the call first comes in,” he said.

Telus Communications Inc. is the 911 network provider for B.C. and Alberta.

Jeff Smith, managing consultant of regulatory affairs with Telus, said Telus has gotten 10 out of 25 regional districts in B.C. to sign updated contracts, which allows Telus to deliver NG911 services. The pre-existing 911 service contracts between regional governments and Telus have been in place for 30 years, Smith said.

In larger urban areas such as Metro Vancouver, Smith said, contract updates are more complex because of the way 911 services are split up throughout the area — as with the Vancouver Police Department, Surrey Fire Fighters Association and BC Ambulance Service, for example.

Canada is the first country to upgrade to NG911, Smith added.

NG911 will be more resilient to extreme weather caused by climate change because it is no longer reliant on a single phone cable, said Ivan Rincon, executive director of project management at the Ministry of Citizens’ Services in B.C. The IP-based system is “based on the cloud,” he said, referencing Apple’s iCloud, which allows you to store files on the internet to be accessed using multiple devices.

“There’s no single point of failure. No one thing can go wrong and knock it out,” Smith said.

Text message access to 911 services is already available for d/Deaf, hard of hearing and speech disabilities in most parts of Canada, according to the federal government. NG911 will replace this service.

While telecom companies are rolling out NG911, the province is also working on improving cell and internet services across B.C. Its goal is to make high-speed internet and cell service accessible to the entire population of B.C. by 2027.

The province estimates that 74 per cent of households in rural B.C. and 77 per cent of First Nations households on reserves have access to high-speed internet and just over 70 per cent of highways have cell service.

This spring the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General said it was investing $150 million to help local governments pay to upgrade to NG911. Sixty per cent of the funding is to be dedicated to technology upgrades and 40 per cent would go to local governments for things like training staff and the public how to use the new system or offering translated services.

On Thursday a representative for the ministry said all local governments had been contacted and told how they could access the funding and what they could use it for. Around $36 million has been allocated this way, with the rest held back to pay for future or unforeseen expenses, they said.

Right now, when you call 911 in B.C. the call automatically goes to a central emergency communications hub, or E-Comm.

Donald Grant, president of the Emergency Communications Professionals of BC, told The Tyee E-Comm services are currently facing a staffing shortage.

Call volume is up 20 per cent for January to July 2023 compared with the same period last year and emergency calls can be put on hold for 10 to 15 minutes because of “chronic underfunding and understaffing of the system,” he said.

“We just aren’t able to staff all the levels that are required to meet the public’s needs,” Grant said.

This means many operators aren’t able to take breaks and are being forced to work overtime, he said.

Grant said the province should do what the UBCM is asking for as soon as possible “to avert a potential crisis.”

He said the funding structure the UBCM is proposing for NG911 would better fund E-Comm. The current system is funded by property taxes, which sets a budget a year in advance and “isn’t reactive to current needs,” he added, noting E-Comm is currently over budget because of the increase in call volume.

E-Comm needs to hire around 125 more emergency call takers and 22 dispatchers, he said. Right now the system would not be able to handle another major incident like the 2021 heat dome or atmospheric river, he said.

“What we saw during the heat dome was essentially a collapse of the 911 system. Without adequate staffing — it keeps me up at night that something like that could happen again,” he said.

The workload will “increase significantly” for E-Comm staff once NG911 is operational, because responding to a text or photo will take longer than speaking directly to a person, Grant said.

“Obviously there’s a lot of information that’s gained from being able to see things, but there’s also immense pressure on the 911 operator to be seeing very traumatic content in some circumstances,” he said.

But what the rollout of the technology will look like “remains to be seen.”

On Thursday a presentation at the UBCM noted how communities will be able to customize NG911 services, similar to how a cellphone can be customized with different apps.

This will give communities a say in what services they want offered.

Coquitlam Coun. Hodge said he remembers the time before 911 was the go-to emergency number to call. The first page of phone books used to list all of the local emergency numbers, he said.

Then 911 was introduced, but someone would still have to run to a pay phone to call it. Now, most people have a phone in their pocket. Emergency services should be updated to reflect changing technologies and societal needs, Hodge said.  [Tyee]

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