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Joel McDonald, Lethbridge 9-1-1 Operations Manager, in the city's Public Safety Communications Centre in Lethbridge, Alta., on March 12, 2021.

Ian Martens/The Globe and Mail

When a car rolls over or collides with something, sensors inside gather critical information such as the vehicle’s speed at impact, whether the airbags were deployed and how many people were inside.

Modern vehicles collect more than 120 pieces of data – information that could help an ambulance dispatcher determine whether to send advanced life support technicians and what kind of equipment the local hospital might need.

But Canada’s emergency communications system, which is based on 1970s technology, can’t access this data. Instead, workers at call centres staffed by the car manufacturers relay the information verbally to operators at Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), government-run centres that handle 9-1-1 calls. The system is not only time-consuming but also error-prone, says Holly Barkwell, the Canadian regional director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), an international organization focused on 9-1-1 policy and technology. “The potential for errors on data entry is pretty significant because they’re typing at high rates of speed,” Ms. Barkwell says.

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This is one of many examples of the limitations of Canada’s 9-1-1 system, which was designed for landline phones and is unable to receive or analyze the kinds of data produced by modern communications technology. Although upgrades have been made to support cellphone calls, it can still be challenging for emergency crews to find someone calling from an underground parking lot or a high-rise building in a dense urban area. “We depend on the caller being able to narrow down where they are and provide landmarks and location information,” Ms. Barkwell says.

As Canadian telecoms begin to roll out 5G wireless technology, which is expected to power Internet of Things (IOT) applications such as smart cities, thousands of sensors will start collecting troves of potentially lifesaving data. But emergency crews won’t be able to access them without a system overhaul.

Canada is in the midst of the biggest transformation to its 9-1-1 systems in decades – part of a global shift to modernize emergency communications. Replacing the current network with a new, internet-protocol-based system is a multiyear project that will occur in stages. Referred to as next-generation 9-1-1, the new system will make it easier for emergency crews to locate callers and, eventually, will allow people to communicate with dispatchers through text messages, photos and videos – arming first responders with vital information as they head into blazes or violent confrontations. The ability to silently text 9-1-1 could be lifesaving for anyone in a situation where making a call could put them in danger.

But the project, which has dragged on for years, was dealt another setback last year when the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) suspended the 2023 deadline to decommission the old 9-1-1 system because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The regulator is mulling new deadlines for the transition, with a decision expected in the coming weeks.

While a new March 30, 2024, deadline for decommissioning the old system has been proposed, PSAPs said in a submission to the telecom regulator last fall that it’s “highly unlikely” to be met. Experts say there are numerous obstacles for the ambitious project to overcome, including insufficient funding, a limited number of vendors to supply the necessary gear and the challenge of co-ordinating with more than 300 local 9-1-1 centres.

‘It’s bursting at the seams’

As mobile technology has evolved, Canada’s 9-1-1 system has not kept pace. Operators have managed to shoehorn in additional functionality, for instance to help locate people calling from cellphones, but the system is maxed out, Ms. Barkwell says.

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“It’s managed to accommodate what we need it to do,” she says. “But given the proliferation of smart devices and the expectations of consumers, the platform just simply cannot be leveraged any further. It’s bursting at the seams.”

Canada’s approach to modernizing 9-1-1 differs from the United States, where the approach has been fragmented and left up to individual states. “Depending on whether you’re in California or Wisconsin, the experience you get on the phone can be different,” Ms. Barkwell says. “In some areas you may be able to text 9-1-1, in some areas you can’t. In Canada we’re trying to co-ordinate the rollout across the country, so that the service is ubiquitous across the country.”

While Canada’s approach is expected to yield more consistent results, it has also created challenges as it requires co-ordinating with hundreds of PSAPs of varying sizes and access to resources. It may also make it tougher to meet the deadlines, as there are a limited number of vendors producing the highly specialized technology needed. And, Ms. Barkwell adds, those overseeing the transition are all volunteers. “Sometimes it takes longer, because people have day jobs, too.”

Joel McDonald, the deputy commander for Lethbridge 9-1-1, says that to cover the high costs of next-generation 9-1-1 technology, PSAPs will need to either secure more funding from their municipalities or get financial support from the provincial or federal governments. Alberta’s PSAPs are expected to spend an additional $41-million a year to roll out the new system.

“Alberta does have a 9-1-1 levy that helps offset the cost of 9-1-1 infrastructure, but it’s lower than other provinces,” Mr. McDonald says. Telephone customers in Alberta pay 44 cents on each monthly phone bill for 9-1-1 services, which is on the lower end compared with 97 cents in New Brunswick, 94 cents in Saskatchewan and $1.70 in the Northwest Territories. Bill 56, which has passed a first reading in the Alberta legislature, would boost the levy to 95 cents.

While some of Canada’s 300-plus PSAPs have already lined up funding, others – particularly smaller ones – are still in the planning stage, Ms. Barkwell says.

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‘A plan specific to circumstances in the North’

The challenges are the greatest in the North, where some regions have only what’s known as basic 9-1-1 service, while others have none at all. (Basic 9-1-1 service doesn’t transmit location information from callers using mobile phones.)

“Essentially, we’re looking at transitioning from either basic or no 9-1-1 to next-generation 9-1-1, skipping over the enhanced 9-1-1 already available in much of the south,” says Andrew Anderson, director of communications for Northwestel Inc., a Bell Canada-owned telecom that serves Yukon, the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, northern British Columbia and northern Alberta.

“That’s why we’ve asked the CRTC to exempt the North from its existing next-generation 9-1-1 timeline while the CRTC-mandated working group that includes all stakeholders develops a plan specific to circumstances in the North,” he added.

Meanwhile, the industry is waiting on updated timelines from the regulator. BCE Inc.’s Bell Canada, one of the three telecoms building the new network the PSAPs will plug into, said it was on track to launch the network, and begin the lengthy process of onboarding PSAPs, for March 30, the tentative date that the CRTC had proposed last year when it suspended its original June, 2020, deadline for the pandemic.

But the March 30 date was never confirmed, and in February the regulator advised Bell to continue working in its test environment until new timelines are set, Bell said in a statement. Telus said it is continuing to build out the network in Western Canada, while Sasktel, which is deploying it in Saskatchewan, said it’s working toward onboarding PSAPs but can’t provide a timeframe until the CRTC provides the industry with more direction. The regulator did not say when it will come to its decision, noting that the proceeding is still active.

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The PSAPs have told the CRTC that it’s unrealistic for the current system to be decommissioned before June 30, 2025. “The Commission’s recent suspension of milestones has created great uncertainty and caused many public safety agencies, governments and PSAPs to slow down or delay work and decisions related to next-generation 9-1-1, pending the re-establishment of firm national milestones,” they wrote in their submission.

Ms. Barkwell says that despite the delays, Canada has an opportunity to be a world leader in rolling out the service in a co-ordinated, national fashion, versus the patchwork approaches seen elsewhere.

”We’re getting there,” Ms. Barkwell said. “We still have challenges and we continue to address those as they come along. We will get there.”

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