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Local leaders concerned about 911 'middleman'

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.

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