Hold, please: Lack of money pauses plans for 911 service in N.W.T.

The territorial government says the time is right for a 911 service in the Northwest Territories, but there's not enough money to pay for it.

Territorial government wants to wait for ‘right fiscal environment’

The Yukon's 911 call centre inside the Emergency Response Centre in Whitehorse. Whitehorse is the only jurisdiction in the three territories with 911 service — something many in Yellowknife would like to change.

The territorial government says the time is right for a 911 service in the Northwest Territories, but there's not enough money to pay for it.

Whitehorse is currently the only jurisdiction in the three territories with the service — an issue that has surfaced time and again, most recently in Yellowknife following the news that a resident dialed 911 to report a fire last weekend.

"I imagine this recent incident may, perhaps, highlight a need for 911," Tom Williams, deputy minister for the N.W.T.'s Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), told CBC.

Consultants developed a proposal for basic 911 service in the N.W.T. last year, but the service is not in MACA's business plan ahead of the territory's next budget. That could change though. Williams said the department's business plan will go under review next week.

'We're waiting for some political direction on how we move forward,' said Tom Williams, deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs. (David Thurton/CBC)

"It's temporarily on hold until we ensure we're in the right fiscal environment and we can make an investment in this area," he said.

"We're waiting for some political direction on how we move forward."

Williams said while support for 911 is high in Yellowknife, some smaller communities "don't see a benefit" to employing the system.

"We have to reconcile that," he said.

Williams' department is studying developments in Yukon, which recently underwent a similar process and boasts a new 911 call centre. Yukon's government hopes to roll out territory-wide service this summer.

'Political will'

In late 2015, a report by Pomax Consulting Inc., the City of Yellowknife and the Government of the Northwest Territories suggested the best option in the N.W.T. would be turning Yellowknife's fire dispatch, inside its fire hall, into a broader territory-wide 911 dispatch.

The report said that would be the simplest and most cost effective solution, rather than building a brand new dispatch centre or outsourcing calls to a centre outside the territory.

The cost of revamping the fire hall dispatch is projected at $616,100, followed by annual operating costs of $869,300.

Dennis Marchiori, the City's director of public safety, said the plan is "feasible" but added: "It depends on funding and, of course, political will to get that done."

The City of Yellowknife has twice contemplated launching its own, limited 911 service — conducting research in 1999 and 2006.

Monthly levy

Pomax estimates any dispatch centre could expect just under 27,000 calls annually.

According to Pomax's report, the RCMP — which operates some other dispatch centres in Canada — believes the "technical, operational, and administrative challenges" in the territory are too great for it to take a leading role.

However, the report suggests Northwestel has the right infrastructure in place for territory-wide 911 (Northwestel could not confirm this when asked) and would only need a few months to make the necessary technical adjustments.

If the legislature were to approve plans for 911, which could happen this summer if MACA does include the service in its business plan, Pomax and Williams concur that implementing the service would take roughly a year.

It would involve passing legislation to govern such things as which body oversees 911, how agreements with telecoms companies and emergency service providers are managed, and what penalties would apply for misuse.

Legislation would also be needed to set up a monthly levy paid by N.W.T. phone customers to help fund 911.

This is common elsewhere in Canada. Pomax believes the territory's residents would be looking at a levy of up to $1.37 a month on their landline bills or $1.17 a month for cellphones.

The consultants say this would bring in just over $600,000 a year, reducing the operational funding required to around $260,000 annually.

'It's another cost'

Dennis Marchiori, the City of Yellowknife's director of public safety, says 911 service likely would not have changed the outcome of a fire in the city on Sunday. (CBC)
Pomax, in its conclusion, says enthusiasm for that new fee will be "the true test of the public's appetite for 911."

Marchiori, meanwhile, believes educating residents about the current emergency numbers is as important as introducing 911. He doesn't believe an operational 911 service would have improved the outcome of the fire at Fitzgerald Carpeting in Yellowknife on Sunday.

"In that instance, because of the nature of the building and the stuff that was stored inside, I'm not sure whether phoning 911 or our emergency number would have made any difference in trying to save that building," said Marchiori.

"911 is another cost. As long as the public knows what the emergency numbers are, and knows they can fully rely on [emergency services] to get there and deal with their concerns, that is my most important aspect."