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A woman uses her cellphone in downtown Toronto on Sept. 3, 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)
A woman uses her cellphone in downtown Toronto on Sept. 3, 2013. (Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail)

Globe editorial

Free 911 from balkanization Add to ...

Canada needs a co-ordinating body to help provinces and municipalities make sure their 911 emergency services can keep pace with new technologies, and to ensure that a vital but fractured service network is operating to similar standards across the country.

Canada’s telecommunications regulator, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, released a report on Thursday outlining the lack of consistent standards or co-ordinated long-term planning for 911 services, because of their local delivery, and because the systems involve a wide variety of players, such as regulators, phone companies and local fire and ambulance services.

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The report’s author, former CRTC commissioner Timothy Denton, said that 911 services have grown organically across the country for decades, but “a comprehensive view of the 911 system is missing.” His conclusion is that the system is currently working well “because of the good faith of its participants,” but that there is a lack of good oversight or governance of the network.

Mr. Denton says money is collected at various levels to fund 911 services, but there is no broad oversight of how or even whether it is spent. Even basic national statistics are not gathered, such as how many 911 phone calls were made across Canada last year. There is a critical lack of national planning, particularly in considering how to deal with the evolution of telephone calls using computers and the Internet – a major gap. The CRTC itself, which plays a role in regulating the telecommunications slice of the system, does not have a single person dedicated to 911 issues.

There is clearly a need for far more public education about how the system works. A 2010 public survey found dangerous misperceptions, including a widespread belief that 911 operators can pinpoint where a cellphone call is coming from, and that emergency responders monitor social-media sites for requests for help.

Education campaigns, long-term planning and national standards require co-ordination and co-operation to avoid duplicated efforts and provide consistency. The logical place to begin is for the federal government and provinces to agree to create a pan-Canadian forum that can bring the key players in the system to the table.

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