Skip to main content

A CRTC logo is shown in Montreal on September 10, 2012.Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

The federal telecom regulator is aiming to close potentially dangerous technological gaps in Canada's 911 services.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has taken the first step in modernizing an emergency system that was created before cellphones were invented.

The announcement on Monday of a public consultation comes as Canadians increasingly rely on cellphones – 10 per cent of households had gone "wireless only" by 2010, a trend that is expected to continue.

National commissioner Tim Denton, who has been appointed to lead the review and present preliminary findings in May, faces the daunting task of forecasting the future of an industry that changes faster than many companies can predict.

But he will also have to deal with the effects of Canada's digital divide: Large swaths of the Far North and Newfoundland and Labrador still don't have access to basic 911 services.

Among those that do have access, more and more people are turning to social media sites, such as Twitter, to seek emergency help.

First responders, such as firefighters, paramedics and police, warn those issues can lead to delays in sending timely help during emergencies.

"Each year, the 911 system is relied upon by thousands of Canadians during emergency situations," Mr. Denton said. "As telecommunications networks evolve and adopt new technologies, we all have an interest in ensuring that the system continues to meet Canadians' needs."

Canadians will have until Feb. 1 to submit ideas on improving the 911 system – an upgrade that will likely be shouldered by players ranging from telcos to municipalities.

For their part, providers such as Telus suggest the responsibility for upgrading the system should be shared. But even a shared financial burden could prove problematic in an uncertain economic environment, according to others.

In the meantime, Telus spokesman Shawn Hall pointed to the increased effectiveness of GPS and other technologies to locate people calling 911 from their cellphones. But GPS alone is not enough, he said.

"GPS does not work in all scenarios. You have to have a clear view to the GPS satellites in the sky. But if you're inside, if you're under a heavy canopy of trees, it might not work. In which case, our system automatically goes and tries triangulation, using the signal strength of all the wireless sites in the area to identify where approximately where you are," he said.

The CRTC has already made some moves to update the system. Earlier this year, it announced plans for a three-month trial using text messaging to improve the accessibility of 911 emergency services for people with hearing or speech problems.

It has also cracked down on voice over Internet protocol service providers that fail to comply with 911 rules.

It undertook that initiative following the death of a Calgary baby in 2008. In that case, 18-month-old Elijah Luck died after an ambulance was mistakenly dispatched to his family's old home in Mississauga, after his family called 911 from an Internet phone.

The Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police has previously said current CRTC policies are problematic because they only require "the release of the number and not the name and address associated with a cellphone" when 911 calls are placed.

"People picking up their wired phone and phoning 911 is becoming less and less the reality. And more and more the reality is wireless," said Lance Valcour, a retired police officer who is now executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group, a not-for-profit corporation that represents first responders.

The future, he said, is likely to include text-based 911 services, along with the ability of people to send emergency workers photos and videos.

Already, fast-changing consumer habits are creating unrealistic expectations, he said.

In October, the Canadian Red Cross released survey data collected by Ipsos that showed 63 per cent of Canadians surveyed think emergency workers "should be prepared to respond to calls for help that are posted on social media networks."

Perhaps most shocking, more than one-third thought that emergency workers would respond to a plea for help on sites like Twitter.