CRTC Seeks Feedback on Next-Generation 911 Services

Charlottetown fire department 911 on side of engine

The CRTC is holding a hearing on upgrading the 911 service, allowing users to be able to text, send a photo or even share a video of a bad guy in addition to making 911 phone calls. That’s what the regulator envisions, but in practice it all depends on who is footing the bill, say critics.

In a written statement containing his opening remarks, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais said broadband services have transformed many aspects of everyday life, and that 911 services should benefit from a technological upgrade.

There are currently two types of emergency services: basic and enhanced. Those with basic have to tell the operator their location, while the enhanced 911 service is supposed to determine the user’s location automatically.

But the operator isn’t able, for example, to tell your elevation if you are located in a 30-storey building, Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency department physician and professor of public health at the University of Alberta, told CBC News.

He said that about half of 911 calls are from cellphones, but networks using VoIP technology aren’t as reliable at locating users as some may think. Also, what happens if any carrier faces a system-wide outage? That basically means millions of customers are without an emergency service, he said.

Interestingly, a high-tech emergency service developed and provided by a Québec-based company is exported to the US. Solacom, a Gatineau, Québec-based company, supplies an emergency service that covers 93% of the US population.
The CRTC wants feedback from the Canadian population during the five-day hearing, which opened on January 16.

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  • Gary Bowen

    I called 911 for an intruder who climbed up onto my condo balcony last year. I was so shocked in that moment, I gave them the wrong street/avenue location and postal code, even though I’ve lived there for years. Having a smart 911 system would be good. I’d even be willing to foot the bill for it at a reasonable price per call.

    Also, it took so long to describe the guy on the phone, that yes, it would have been easier to send a photo of him, in addition to the location. (Kind of like how in Calgary, we have a 311 App – not sure if other cities have that too).

  • Mark

    One of the key points to take away from this is that enhanced 911 (cellular) service only provides a general idea of where the caller might be and not the exact address they’re calling from. A 911 operator is presented with GPS info that identifies the approximate location of that caller and perhaps a radius. It might for instance identify that the caller is in the area of Main St & John St and indicate that the signal is accurate to 900 meters or perhaps 2500 meters. If the person is calling from downtown Toronto for example, this might account for literally tens of thousands of possible physical addresses that this person could be calling from. Their GPS signal isn’t exactly all that useful in finding them in this situation.

    On the flip side, if they just slid their car off the highway into a ditch in rural Ontario, say somewhere on the 403 west of London heading west bound, and the GPS signal presents the same kind of information to the 911 operator, it will be infinitely easier to find them on the 403 – even if they don’t know exactly where they are.

    Moral of the story is to always know where you are and be ready to provide this info when calling 911. Enhanced does not mean magical. Better yet, if you need help where you are, pick up that landline (not VOIP) and dial from it instead, assuming you still have a landline. 911 receives all address info associated with that landline. This can be a much quicker response in an emergency.

    The discussion to add further “enhancement” to 911 is somewhat like that solution looking for a problem. Calling 911 needs to be as simple of a process as humanly possible. Not sure it gets any easier than pressing 911 on your phone. Text to voice for those with a hearing impairment has existed for a very long time. Adding capability to text 911 with your emergency? If you want to slow down the entire process and wait a few more minutes before help arrives…then sure. You want to send pictures to 911? There is nothing an ambulance communicator needs to see a picture of that will assist in sending you that ambulance any faster, trust me. Fire doesn’t need to see the size of the flames, they need to know where the fire is and if all occupants are safe, and before you take that snap of that burglar, he’s probably already made off with your new S7 anyway. Save it for Facebook or those Twitter feeds. Odds are good that 911 operator will have to call you and talk to you anyway which will only add to the response time.

    Most people panic in an emergency situation especially when it’s yourself or a loved one that’s involved, often to the point that they may forget their own address (just as Gary did) or have difficulty answering other basic questions, this is not unusual. Adding “features” that take away from the simplicity of dialling 3 digits and speaking to someone who is trained in obtaining crucial information from a panicked caller or calming them down and providing them with first aid instructions is not going to enhance the process. But I’m sure the powers that be will dive head first into that future regardless of the consequences.