Canadians make 12 million calls to 911 every year, and they take it for granted that when they dial those three digits, help will find them.
That's how it was for Melvin and Khadija Luck. In April, they made a frantic 911 call. Their 18-month-old son, Elijah, had stopped breathing and was turning blue. While the Lucks waited for an ambulance at their Calgary home, a terrible mix-up unfolded three provinces away: The family's Toronto-based Internet phone company mistakenly dispatched an ambulance to the Lucks' old address in Mississauga. By the time help arrived almost half an hour later, it was too late for Elijah. He died in hospital.
"It has shaken us completely," Mr. Luck said this week. "The doctors said if the ambulance had come within five minutes, my baby might be alive. There are no guarantees, but I believe that he would still be here."
The breakdowns that preceded Elijah's death were not isolated mistakes. In a six-month investigation of Canada's 911 service, The Globe and Mail found that a lack of federal oversight, regulatory loopholes and outdated technology have left this country's emergency dispatchers scrambling to locate callers who dial 911 from cellphones or from Internet phones.
There are now nearly 21 million wireless subscribers in Canada. More than half of all 911 calls placed each year are made on cellphones, and 250,000 Canadian homes have the same kind of voice-over Internet Protocol phones the Lucks used the day their son died. Yet the relatively cheap technology that would allow dispatchers to find cell and Internet phone users isn't in place in Canada. If these callers can't speak, or don't know where they are, 911 dispatchers can't find them.
This failure had fatal or near-fatal consequences in at least four cases this year, including Elijah's and that of a 39-year-old man beaten and dumped in a field he didn't recognize near Brooks, Alta. He called 911 from a cellphone. Police found his body two days later.
The Globe's investigation found that Canada's telecom regulator, which sets the rules for 911, knew it had a serious problem on its hands long before this year's deaths.
For example, four years before Elijah Luck died, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission was alerted to at least 72 similar mix-ups involving 911 calls made from Internet phones. Those included an Arizona 911 call mistakenly connected to dispatchers in Toronto and several emergency calls from Ontario and Quebec that couldn't be traced.
The misdirected calls prompted the CRTC and Canada's voice-over Internet phone companies to draft a solution that might have saved Elijah's life. But the proposal sat on a shelf for more than a year before the toddler died while the regulator and the telecom sector bickered over who should pay to fix the problem, according to some of the 3,000 pages of documents obtained by The Globe, most under access-to-information laws.
"This needs to be fixed," Mr. Luck said. Judy Broomfield, the head of Toronto's 911 dispatch centre, said more tragedies are inevitable. "Right now there is no way to prevent another Calgary. I can sadly guarantee that," she said. "We have this happen all the time. We just haven't had anybody [else]die yet."
'I'M GOING TO DIE TONIGHT'
Two hours into his 911 cellphone call, Garth Pratt began to hallucinate. Through the frosted-over windows of his wrecked minivan, he could see the headlights of approaching cars and hear the sirens. He thought help was on the way. But on a barren stretch of Saskatchewan prairie the night of Jan. 16, there was nothing but the wind and the snow pounding against his vehicle, which had swerved off an icy road and rolled into the ditch.
The 33-year-old had no idea where he was. He hadn't paid any attention to how far he'd driven from the last town. Still dazed, he managed to dial 911 from his cellphone. The temperature was -39.
Ninety kilometres away in Saskatoon, regional 911 dispatcher Janice Marcotte had spent the past two hours on the phone, trying to keep Mr. Pratt talking until the ambulance arrived. Now hypothermia was setting in.
"I think I'm going to die tonight," he told Ms. Marcotte.
"No you're not. We're close, we're really close," she replied.
But they weren't. The dispatchers had little to go on. All they knew was the location of the cell tower picking up his signal, which narrowed the search to about 40 square kilometres.
"I had to put down the phone. It was too hard," Ms. Marcotte says. "I was listening to the guy die on the phone."
It took nearly 3 1/2 hours before emergency crews, including two RCMP cars and two ambulances, finally discovered Mr. Pratt on the side of the road. The dispatchers huddled by the radio for several minutes, listening anxiously until paramedics confirmed he was alive and took him to hospital.