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The Toronto police 911 dispatch centre is seen in this file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)
The Toronto police 911 dispatch centre is seen in this file photo. (Peter Power/The Globe and Mail)

emergency services

Canada’s 911 system needs an urgent overhaul, CRTC told Add to ...

Canada’s 911 system is plagued with numerous problems, including technology gaps, lack of oversight and inadequate funding, and is in dire need of an overhaul or risks falling apart as telecoms upgrade to new communications systems.

That blunt assessment was delivered in a new report, released Thursday, which will form the basis of a sweeping consultation on the future of 911 services by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).

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The 80-page study titled, Report on Matters Related to Emergency 911 Services, was prepared for the telecom regulator by former commissioner Timothy Denton. It paints a disturbing picture of “shortcomings” in the 911 system that could potentially put lives at risk especially now that Canadians consumers are flocking to new modes of communications such as smartphones and voice over Internet protocol services.

Although some 98 per cent of Canadians are believed to have access to 911 services today, there are still huge swaths of the Far North that do not use that emergency three digit number at a time when economic development in that region has become a priority for the federal government.

Underscoring that disparity, telecom providers are already preparing for the introduction of so-called Next Generation 911 services in southern parts of the country that could include text messages, photos, video and perhaps eventually contacting emergency services over social media sites such as Twitter. Although those future standards have yet to be determined, the report found the current system appears ill-equipped to keep pace.

“The change in communications technologies is completely foreseeable; it is happening now. Unfortunately, there does not exist a policy forum adequate to the task of co-ordinating and anticipating the changes that are coming,” reads Mr. Denton’s report.

Among the key concerns highlighted in the report, there is a lack of accountability over 911 services. There is no central body that oversees the entire system and the CRTC does not have a single staff member that is solely dedicated to working on 911 issues.

There are also key concerns about lingering problems with accurately locating callers that use smartphones or VOIP phones.Telcos often used “triangulation” to help determine the location of a cellphone caller through the use of their towers, but the information can be imprecise. For instance, it is impossible to determine a caller’s altitude – a gap that can prove problematic in big cities characterized by high rise buildings.

What’s more, “pocket dialling” to 911 from wireless phones, caller ID spoofing and faked emergencies (a trend known as “swatting”) are also draining the system of resources.

In order to begin to address the myriad of problems, Mr. Denton’s report makes five key recommendations:

The CRTC should help create a “national policy forum” on 911 issues.

There should be “dedicated staff” at the CRTC focusing just on 911.

Pressure should be put on the Commission’s Emergency Service Working Group (ESWG) to resolve lingering problems with determining caller location.

The ESWG should also be revamped and given a budget.

The CRTC should follow the lead of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and strike advisory committee to address key issues.

The CRTC, which is launching a broader consultation on the future of 911 services, is inviting Canadians to comment on Mr. Denton’s report and his recommendations by Nov. 25.

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