The territorial government is taking its first steps toward potentially implementing an NWT-wide 911 service.
Together with the RCMP, Northwestel and the NWT Association of Communities (NWTAC), the GNWT is carrying out a 911 Implementation Study to explore its options and gauge the territory’s current state of readiness, according to Kevin Brezinski, director of public safety.
“There’s a lot of work to do to get to the point where key decisions can be made,” he said. “We want to know what people think of this.”
The initiative got underway with a survey of community leaders and senior community government officials at the NWTAC annual general meeting in May, said Tom Williams, deputy minister of MACA.
“We want to build a case,” Williams said. “We’re one of the few jurisdictions that doesn’t have (911 service), but then we have the infrastructure needs here that other jurisdictions don’t have.”
Larry Baran, senior administrative officer in Whati, was one of the many NWTAC delegates to take part in the survey. He said he supports MACA’s efforts.
“Even if it means moving one community at a time, it will be progress,” he said. “I am a strong believer in the importance of the implementation because a 911 service saves lives.”
During his career as a municipal administrator, Baran oversaw the implementation of 911 service in two Alberta communities – Delburne and Fox Creek.
Fox Creek was the second-to-last community in Alberta to make the switch to 911 service, and Baran said the conversion took more than two years.
“It isn’t easy and there is often push-back,” he said. “There was a great deal of work, negotiations and set-up before it went live.”
Like in many NWT communities, Fox Creek didn’t have a standardized addressing system, and it took time to attach official civic addresses to each house and landline.
An added hurdle in the NWT is that many communities don’t have ground ambulance services and other first responders available.
“It wasn’t a simple process,” Baran said. “But it was worth the effort.”
Another hurdle is the increasing prevalence of cell phone usage. Like in Fox Creek, Baran said the NWT doesn’t have sufficient towers to triangulate the location of a cell phone. The solution they came up with there, he said, was to create a sticker with relevant addresses and contact information that each resident could place near their phone.
“Everybody knew to look for that,” Baran said.
Cost would be in millions
In the survey circulated at the NWTAC annual general meeting, delegates were asked how 911 service, if implemented, should be funded.
Their options: the GNWT, community governments, a monthly charge per phone line (between $1 and $1.50) or through other means.
“If I were speaking as the SAO, I would say the GNWT should absorb all the costs,” Baran said, “but in reality, in Alberta, the costs were shared by residents, the community, and the provincial government. That is the logical way of dealing with it.”
The 911 Implementation Study is being carried out by POMAX Consulting Inc., the same company that completed a 911 feasibility study for Newfoundland and Labrador.
The study, released in 2012, found that an initial capital investment of $1.5 million and annual investments of $2.3 million would be needed. At the time, 40 per cent of the province was covered by 911 services.
Brezinski and Williams said it’s impossible to say what kind of costs might be involved in the NWT, or what kind of timeline 911 implementation would follow, but a 2008 feasibility study completed for the city of Yellowknife put the cost in the millions.
That study, carried out by Planetworks Consulting Corp., recommended implementing service in Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River, Fort Simpson, Fort Smith, Norman Wells and Behchoko.
This option, which would follow implementation in Yellowknife and precede coverage across the NWT, was estimated to cost just over $1 million in initial costs and $1.29 million annually.
“This would cover more than 77 per cent of the territorial population,” the study said. “Providing service to the remaining 25 smallest communities is technically possible but would require major telecommunications network upgrades and take several years to complete.”
Brezinski noted that in a period of “belt tightening,” full 911 service is a long-term goal and one that will involve much consultation.
Williams said they aren’t ruling out any options, like placing a call centre abroad in places like Romania, that could help the bottom line.
“We’ll consider any proposal,” he said.
911 reduces delays, saves lives
The study in Newfoundland and Labrador noted that having to dial seven-digit numbers for police, fire and ambulance was a source of confusion and delays, especially considering that Yellowknife and the larger communities have a high proportion of transient residents from parts of Canada with 911 service already available.
Baran said the fact that 911 is the universally recognized emergency number in most parts of North America is reason enough to make the change.
“There are amazing stories where even toddlers have been known to call 911 because their parent has become incapacitated and the toddler knows that you are supposed to call 911 in an emergency,” he said.
“The problem you have is when you have to dial a seven or 10 digit number. It’s too easy to make a mistake. When you’re dealing with three digits, you could almost be having a stroke and dial the number.”
Unlike with -1111 and -2222 emergency calls, if a 911 call comes in and there is no response on the other end, first responders will automatically be dispatched to the corresponding address.
If the caller is choking, harmed or in danger and unable to speak, they will still receive emergency services.
To emphasize this point, Baran told the story of a woman in Fox Creek who called 911 after the community made the switch from a seven digit emergency number.
She was being assaulted by her husband and was only able to dial 911 before dropping the phone. The RCMP responded immediately.
“She didn’t have to say a thing,” Baran said.