All Canadians should be able to text 911 in emergency, say deaf advocates

A special committee wants to make it easier for deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired (DHHSI) Canadians to access 911 services by text during an emergency.

Newfoundland and Labrador only province without service, no northern territories covered

Currently not all regions of Canada have 911 services that are accessible for the deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired. (Geoff Bartlett/CBC)

A special committee wants to make it easier for deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired (DHHSI) Canadians to access 911 services during an emergency.

The Deaf Wireless Canada Committee (DWCC) was formed in June 2015 to advocate for the deaf, deafblind and hard of hearing when it comes to issues around wireless technology.

It wants all Canadians to have access to Text with 9-1-1 service, which allows users to text messaging in an emergency instead of a traditional audio call. In its current form, the service lets a user — who must be registered — dial 911 normally with out speaking. The emergency operator can then text back to the caller and converse only by text.

The Deaf Wireless Canada Committee (DWCC) is presenting to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission next week, to raise concerns about accessibility of 911 services for deaf, hard of hearing and speech impaired Canadians. (DWCC)

On Jan. 19, the group will meet with the CRTC to present suggestions for how 911 services can be improved for the more than three million deaf or hard of hearing people across the country.

Inconsistent coverage

All provinces except Newfoundland and Labrador have at least some areas with Text with 9-1-1 service.

The service is provincewide in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I., Quebec and Saskatchewan, with most of the remaining provinces' most populated regions covered as well.

The northern territories do not currently have any coverage with the Text with 9-1-1 system.

Text with 9-1-1 has been rolling across parts of Canada in recent years, but some areas are still not covered. (textwith911.ca)

DWCC Secretary Nicole Marsh, a deaf woman from St. John's, applauds the progress the CRTC has made on making 911 accessible, but said as long as it's still unavailable to some regions there is still work to do.

"Newfoundland only has basic 911 services. Text with 9-1-1 is not available here at all, as it needs enhanced 911 services to function," she said.

Complicated process

Even in those regions where Text with 9-1-1 exists, the committee feels it is still too difficult for a deaf person to get in touch with a responder. They want the whole process streamlined with less steps.

First off, in order to even use the system the user must first have a phone that allows texting while a phone call is connected, and they must be registered with Text with 9-1-1 access through their wireless service provider.

If that is all set up, the person also has a multi-step process just to get someone on the line. It involves calling 911, and then waiting for the responder to text back — a process which can take minutes.

Marsh said her and other committee members feel that's just too many steps for someone to have to go through when they are dealing with an emotionally-charged emergency situation.

From left, Frank Folino, president of Canadian Association of the Deaf; Lisa Anderson-Kellett, DWCC chair; Nicole Marsh, DWCC secretary; Arista Haas, member; and Rytch Newmiller, member. (Nicole Marsh)

She points to one case where a deaf person reported fumbling to try and use the system during an emergency before finally giving up and getting a friend to call instead. She said the stress of not being able to get through with the Text with 9-1-1 service was so bad the person now suffers mild post-traumatic stress disorder.

"People don't realize they must register first and then have to try and register during an emergency," Marsh said. "Also, they think they can text 911 directly and they don't realize they have to make the phone call first."

Optimistic for changes

Marsh said the CRTC has been good so far when it comes to listening to the committee's suggestions, and she hopes that when they go to Ottawa this week to present they'll be one step closer to helping the deaf feel they have the option to call for help during an emergency.

"The CRTC has been fantastic with considering the concerns DWCC and other similar groups have brought forward in the past, so we feel they will be understanding of the problems we're bringing forward this time," she said.

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About the Author

Geoff Bartlett

Contributor

Geoff Bartlett is an educator and journalist in Corner Brook.