Technology & Science

Text 911 for help? CRTC holds hearing on upgrading emergency services

You may soon be able to text 911 for help, send a photo depicting damage from an emergency or even share video of a bad guy fleeing a scene. But a public health expert says Canadians should be questioning the reliability of the 911 service we already have.

Feedback sought on next generation of 911 services, but critic says real question is who will pay

The CRTC is seeking feedback on the next generation of 911 services, which could allow users to text 911 and even send photos or video to emergency responders. (Ambulance Paramedics and Emergency Dispatchers of B.C.)

You may one day be able to text 911 for help, send a photo, or even share video of a bad guy fleeing a scene.

The next generation of 911 services is the subject of a Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) hearing that started Monday.

"Simply put, technological advances could allow citizens in need of emergency assistance to send text messages, photos, videos and other data to 911 operators, in addition to making 911 phone calls," said CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais in a written statement containing his opening remarks at the hearing Monday morning.

Blais said broadband service has transformed many aspects of everyday life, and that emergency services should also benefit from a tech upgrade.

Limited texting service already exists

In some parts of Canada, people can register for a service that allows them to text 911. The Deaf Wireless Canada Committee wants that service to be available across the country, especially to benefit the deaf, hard of hearing and speech-impaired individuals who are unable to communicate with standard phone calls.

But widely available text to 911 services that don't require registration are still a way off.

The hearings held over five days will aim to establish the roles and responsibilities of telecommunications companies in rolling out the so-called NG-911 (next generation 911), figure out a timeline for getting these set up, and sort out who will pay the bill.

Question of who pays

That's what this really comes down to, said Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency department physician and professor of public health at the University of Alberta. 

"We could do this today if we wanted to, but the service providers are saying, 'Why should they have to pay for it? It should be the government that pays for it,'" Francescutti told CBC News. "And yet these service providers have been collecting 911 fees from all of us.

"They've been collecting a lot of money. How come they haven't been using it to enhance the 911 technology?"

An estimated 96 per cent of Canadians are currently able to call 911 either through a basic service or internet protocol technology. (Pat Martel/CBC)

Before we get fancy with uploading photos and video to 911 operators, we might want to think about the reliability of the technology we do have, said Francescutti.

"When you talk 911, most people think of it as, you pick up your home phone, they know where you are, they can respond to it simply because you've picked up a land line," he said.

There are currently two types of 911 service, basic and enhanced. Those with basic 911 have to tell operators their location, while enhanced 911 service is supposed to determine the user's location automatically through a process of triangulation.

"The problem with that is that if you live in downtown Toronto on the 30th floor of a building, it'll be able to tell that you might be in that building, but for example it won't be able to give you the altitude of where you are in that building," said Francescutti.

Reliability problems

He said 50 per cent of 911 calls are now made from cellphones, and that cell networks that use voice over internet protocol (VoIP) technology aren't as reliable at locating us as we think.

Francescutti pointed to the 2008 case of toddler Elijah Luck, who died after 911 dispatched an ambulance to Mississauga, Ont., the last address the company had for the family, instead of their home in Calgary.

Yet location problems are not the greatest threat to our 911 system, he said.

"The biggest risk we have is, for example, when Rogers, their cell system had an outage, that means [millions of] customers are basically without 911 services," said Francesccutti. "We put ourselves in a very vulnerable situation."

A homegrown solution?

"The sad thing about all of this is that the technology for 911 systems that are very sophisticated is made in Quebec and it's exported to the United States," he said.

Solacom, headquartered in Gatineau, Que., supplies its 911 technology to U.S. dispatch centres that provide emergency service to 93 per cent of the U.S. population, said Francescutti.

Washington mandated that cellphone companies update their technology to provide better location services in emergencies by 2005, putting Canada 12 years behind the U.S., he said.

The real emergency is we don't have a 911 system that works the way it should- Louis Francescutti, emergency department doctor

Patricia Valladao, a media relations manager with the CRTC, said in an email that the hearings will address VoIP technology's "major impact on the networks, systems, and arrangements used to provide 911 services." 

The hearing will also address the CRTC's desire to plan ahead to replace those existing 911 networks that run on aging telecommunications equipment nearing the end of its lifecycle, she said.

Canadians consulted

The hearing follows a period of public consultation last year during which the CRTC solicited comment from Canadians through its website.

The CRTC says that an estimated 96 per cent of Canada's population currently has access to basic or enhanced services, and that it's the responsibility of local governments to establish 911 centres.

Those who live outside the service area of a 911 centre must dial a seven- or 10-digit phone number for emergency services.

Francescutti said he worries that the average Canadian believes emergency services in our country are far more reliable than they are.

"When you call 911 they answer, '911, what's your emergency?' The real emergency is we don't have a 911 system that works the way it should."

About the Author

Brandie Weikle is a senior writer for CBC News based in Toronto. She's a long-time magazine and newspaper editor and podcast host with specialities in family life, health and the workplace. You can reach her at brandie.weikle@cbc.ca.

now