Local leaders concerned about 911 'middleman'

Melissa Jenkins
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Provincewide emergency system set to roll out this month

It has been two decades in the making, but the anticipated introduction of provincewide 911 in Newfoundland and Labrador happens this month.

Provincewide 911 will soon become a reality. If a fire - like the one reported earlier this year at the former Bond Theatre building in Carbonear- takes place, people will able to dial 9-1-1 to get help.

But some are not as excited to see it arrive as others.

Harbour Grace Deputy Mayor Sonia Williams is also an emergency medical responder (EMR) and a firefighter. She understands first hand the effects of implementing provincewide 911 on smaller communities.

"My concern with (the provincewide 911 system) is a person will call 911 in their town, whether they want fire, ambulance or police," she explained. "That's an additional call."

Adding this additional call, Williams says, could delay help.

"Minutes makes a difference in an emergency - medical or fire," she said.

It has been available on the Northeast Avalon, Corner Brook and Labrador, but soon anyone will be able to pick up the phone and dial 9-1-1 in the event of an emergency.

When a person calls 911, the person on the receiving end will be based in a call centre in St. John's or Corner Brook. They will contact the appropriate police station, ambulance company or fire department.

Placentia in same position

The mayor of Placentia, Wayne Power Jr., is also an EMR. He has heard some of the same issues as Williams, and thinks it can be improved.

"Having 911 would be a step in the right direction," he explained. "But once you get into the details, it's just adding another step."

Right now, the government is implementing a basic 911 provincewide system, but that's not the case for other provinces.

"It's going to be a basic 911 system, while other places in Canada are bringing in modern and enhanced versions," Power said.

The more enhanced versions would be more in line with what someone might see on a television show, where someone calls in, their location is readily available, the information gets inputted into a computer, and emergency personnel are dispatched through a computer system.

But our province's system won't have dispatchers, and it would be an expensive endeavour to get all emergency responders in the province up to speed on the new computer technology.

Cost and jobs

A spokesperson for Fire and Emergency Services-Newfoundland and Labrador told The Compass this system carries an annual cost of $4.9 million to operate, while $500,000 will go to telecommunications companies to cover administrative costs. The costs include establishing a centre in Corner Brook, staff, establishing the NL 911 Bureau, government recovery for start up costs, reserve funding to upgrading to the 'Next Generation' 911 system and training, among other administrative costs.

St. John's already has a call centre that will be upgraded with the required equipment. The City of St. John's will be responsible for staffing that centre, but new staff will not be needed, the spokesperson said.

Williams wants to see dispatch centres set up locally to create jobs. But the St. John's centre will cover calls for the Avalon Peninsula, while Corner Brook will handle the rest of the province.

Many changes to older plan

Former Placentia mayor and MHA Bill Hogan was a part of an independent feasibility study on implementing 911 in 1994, which was approved by the Clyde Well's Liberal government. Hogan still has a copy of this report.

The idea to implement provincewide 911 was deferred in 1995 for consideration in the 1996-97 budget. Subsequent Liberal governments elected not to implement the system.

The government report, which The Compass has obtained, identified the need for civic addresses, something that is still an issue in rural areas today. A database of these addresses would have been used to dispatch emergency services.

Implementation of the project was deferred numerous times. The governing Progressive Conservatives announced their decision to move forward with provincewide 911 in 2012.

Many of the items in the initial study are not part of the basic 911 program launching this month. Hogan claims this basic system is not as advanced as the initial plan, and that residents need to know exactly what they are getting.

"(The government is) not giving the product to the people that the people expect," Hogan stated. "The public is so used to watching (TV) shows. It's not going to be like that."

Hogan believes an enhanced system is still the best option, and it would take three years to implement. But it would be worth it.

"People are talking about doing something about the moose," he said. "Well, this is just as important."

Hogan, Williams and Power all agree that everyone should still know their local emergency numbers.

Melissa.jenkins@tc.tc

Organizations: The Compass, Fire and Emergency Services, Newfoundland and Labrador Next Generation Progressive Conservatives

Geographic location: Corner Brook, St. John's, Placentia Northeast Avalon Labrador Canada

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Recent comments

  • Rob
    December 04, 2014 - 05:56

    It's far too costly to have a dispatch Center in every town or region. A centralized location or one province wide location like St Johns is definitely the correct answer however the problem here the the province not having the technology readily available to all first responders for geolocating a persons address. Other provinces, when a user calls 911 it is directed to a regional 911 Center. That call taker will ask if you require police, fire or ambulance. You are then placed on hold for only a few short seconds and then connected to either the local Fire Dispatch for that community, the province wide EMS Ambulance Dispatch, or RCMP/Police dispatch. Once your call reaches the right dispatch Center, your address appears on they CAD (Computer Automated Dispatch) program and the call taker can then insert notes and dispatch the correct units. In other provinces, ambulances and police vehicles are equipped with laptops that show the location of the call, the fastest route, detours and notes about the emergency itself. This won't be an option Ideally this is the setup the province should have but it's expensive and requires all private ambulance services, fire Depts etc to get on board. Having a 911 system is a move in the right direction, it just needs to be implemented correctly . Without the proper tools they can be disconnects and delays as predicted. But I'm sure this is something that was considered when the idea was originally proposed. It's likely the dispatch centers will have a computer that will do a lot of the work for them hopefully. A quick response is essential in an emergency, but the old cliche of "every second counts" is just a way for a first responder to gloat a little ;) I'm a paramedic by trade and a fire fighter as well.

  • Wayne Forward
    December 02, 2014 - 21:10

    With all due respect: It is certainly a great thing to see government move ahead with a province wide 911 system but there are still many issues with the system as they relate to rural Newfoundland. When you call 911 from Brighten, NL for example your call goes to a center in Corner Brook who may or may not know where Brighten is. This can result in very serious delays in a first responder's, be it ambulance, police, fire dept etc, response time. More centers should be implemented so that our calls can be directed to a more local center that do have a good knowledge of the geography of this province and can respond much more efficiently . Mandatory street names and numbers are a must if this system is to work properly. Government should be implementing these regulations before the system is put in place so that first responders have a better handle on where they are going. Not much sense trying to explain that you need an ambulance at a blue and white house , three houses down from John Joe's stage. Wouldn"t you agree?

  • Emer
    December 02, 2014 - 12:52

    This article is exactly right, we should have a completely operational 911 service in every town staffed 24 hours a day! All we have to do is raise the mill rate of each town to cover the cost, or we could have our prov taxes increased to cover the same. What do people want, a little less service or a little higher taxes? Oops forget I noted this, no one wants higher taxes, but they do want better services??