Two years after 911 arrived, why does Yellowknife still use its 2222 number?
There's some dispute over whether 911 or city dispatchers should process calls for EMS and fire services
If you're experiencing an emergency in Yellowknife, what number should you call?
The answer, it turns out, isn't clear.
Nearly two years after the Northwest Territories introduced 911, the City of Yellowknife is still taking emergency calls to its seven-digit fire and medical response numbers (the local prefixes plus 2222), and the city wants to beef up its dispatch services.
It's unclear which emergency number provides the most efficient response, and there's some dispute over whether 911 or city dispatchers should process calls for EMS and fire services.
City officials say there are ongoing issues with how information is shared between 911 and Yellowknife fire and ambulance dispatchers, creating challenges for emergency services and frustration for callers.
The city would prefer it if city dispatchers could speak with callers directly, rather than get callers' information from 911.
The territory, meanwhile, says 911 dispatchers can provide immediate, over-the-phone care to callers while they wait for first responders to arrive. And it says everyone in N.W.T. should be calling 911 in the event of an emergency.
What happens when you call 911
When a person calls 911 in Yellowknife, a dispatcher will ask what community they're in, and whether they need a police, fire or medical response. That's according to N.W.T. 911's standard operating procedure document, obtained by CBC News.
A call for police is immediately transferred to the RCMP.
A caller seeking a medical or fire response will be questioned further by the 911 dispatcher: asked what exactly happened and if they have COVID-19 symptoms, according to 911's protocols. Typically, 911 dispatchers relay that information to the city's fire and ambulance dispatchers, then send out the appropriate first responders. There are times in which 911 will bring the fire hall into the call.
This is different from how it works elsewhere, like in Yukon.
There, a 911 dispatcher will take a call, ask the caller where they are and whether they need police, fire or ambulance, and then transfer the caller to the appropriate emergency service provider.
The territorial Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), which oversees 911, suggests there are good reasons for 911 dispatchers to be the point of contact for callers in distress.
N.W.T. 911 can provide support on the phone for 3,800 medical issues and another 2,800 fire scenarios, a MACA spokesperson said in an email.
In what's known as "pre-arrival care," 911 dispatchers can walk a caller through administering CPR, or helping someone who's choking. N.W.T. 911 dispatchers have twice helped deliver a baby over the phone.
Territorial 911 also uses third-party platforms to help first responders find callers who don't know where they are through location data on the callers' smartphones.
According to the 2019-2020 annual report on N.W.T. 911, the service is equipped to connect callers to interpreters in 200 languages, and to communicate with people who have speech or hearing impairments.
From 911's launch on Nov. 4, 2019, through March of 2020, 911 received more than 6,300 calls from across the territory.
MACA did not grant CBC News an interview with a 911 representative, though a MACA spokesperson said N.W.T.'s 911 service "meets or exceeds" national and international standards for emergency dispatch.
For 911 services, N.W.T. residents pay a monthly fee of $1.70 on their phone bill. The territorial government budgeted more than $1.2 million for 911 this fiscal year.
70% of emergency calls still go to Yellowknife's 2222 number
But city officials say the way 911 and city dispatchers interact right now isn't ideal.
With the current approach, non-urgent calls end up being treated as emergencies, said Jennifer Hunt-Poitras, Yellowknife's director of Public Safety and a former CBC journalist.
That's because the city dispatchers miss out on "detailed information that we would have if we were speaking directly to the caller." That includes picking up on clues like background noise or the caller's tone of voice, which can also signal safety issues to responders.
On occasion, Hunt-Poitras added, this has prevented city dispatchers from effectively triaging calls.
"I don't think that the importance of the dispatching agency having direct contact with the caller can be overstated," said Hunt-Poitras.
There's also a difference in internal communication. N.W.T. 911 assigns codes to a call based on the information the caller provides, and there are thousands of codes. The city, on the other hand, takes a "plain language approach," she said.
About 70 per cent of calls for emergency services still go to Yellowknife's 2222 number, said Hunt-Poitras. She wants 911 to transfer the remainder of fire and EMS calls directly to the city's dispatch centre, similar to how it transfers calls for police to RCMP.
City looking to beef up its own dispatch service
The city is looking to scale up its emergency dispatch service to provide some of that pre-arrival instruction that 911 offers — potentially increasing costs.
The city budgeted $843,000 for its dispatch centre at the fire hall this year.
During budget deliberations last December, city council considered spending $49,000 on medical dispatch software that would help city dispatchers give pre-arrival medical instructions to a caller while they await an ambulance.
Mayor Rebecca Alty pushed back.
"I'm not sure that we need to provide the same service as 911, and that's what I see us doing with this duplication," she said.
Alty said she hoped more residents would call 911 in emergencies "because we are paying for it. Every month I'm paying for 911, and my GNWT taxes are paying for it, so to add my city taxes to be paying for the same service is just a lot of the same resources."
One person who works in emergency services and requested anonymity to protect their employment, equated enhancing the city's dispatch services to "attempting to develop a duplicate system" at an extra cost to taxpayers, as 911 already provides pre-arrival care.
The person is perplexed by the city's continued promotion of 2222 online, and in stickers on the backs of city vehicles.
"There's huge liability for the city, and for those callers of getting a lower level of care, so it doesn't quite make sense," the person said.
City council struck the software from its budget last year, but Hunt-Poitras said her division is still looking to get medical dispatch software.
It's also entered into a contract for translation services in more than 200 languages, she said, and in the next two weeks city dispatchers will be able to take calls from people with hearing or speech impairments.
In the meantime, Hunt-Poitras said when city dispatchers get "life-critical" calls that require immediate medical attention, they can transfer those calls to 911.
She said the notion that the city is duplicating 911 services is based on a misunderstanding of how emergency services operate in Yellowknife, and in the territory more broadly.
"They (911) have an expanded dispatching function out of necessity because they also serve small communities that don't have a professional emergency service dispatching service," she said.
Hunt-Poitras said for the time being, "it's a benefit to the public" to have both services.
The city is working with MACA now, said Hunt-Poitras, to get clarity around the city's and territory's respective roles and responsibilities when it comes to emergency dispatch. MACA didn't confirm this work to CBC News.
"Once we get clarity around whether or not N.W.T. 911 will transfer the calls directly to us, then we can look at amalgamating our protocols, and we're open to that," said Hunt-Poitras.