Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


911 tragedy in Calgary reveals perils of VoIP Add to ...

An ambulance was dispatched in response to a 911 call about a toddler in distress, but the Internet phone service said paramedics went to the address it had on file - a home in Mississauga - not the new home in Calgary where the distraught family waited in vain for help.

The child died before an ambulance sent to the right place could get him to hospital Tuesday night.

The family of 18-month-old Elijah Luck spoke out Thursday about their ordeal accessing 911 emergency services with their telephone company Comwave, which uses voice-over-Internet-protocol technology.

Their nightmare highlights the sometimes serious problems that can occur with VoIP providers' emergency services.

"We lost our little baby," Elijah's aunt, Sylvia Luck, said Thursday. "We can't get him back. But we want to give this awareness to people so this doesn't happen to them."

VoIP is a relatively new technology that many companies ranging from small upstarts to large cable operators have used to break into the phone market. While it has similar features to phone service from a conventional provider such as Bell Canada or Telus Corp., 911 on VoIP works differently.

The "basic 911" service that many VoIP customers have puts them in touch with a call centre that takes down their address and contacts the closest emergency response centre. That's because subscribers are identified by an IP number rather than geographic location. If calls are disconnected, the VoIP provider gives the customer's last known address, which, in the case of the Luck family, was in Mississauga.

Traditional phone providers' enhanced 911 service sends location information on customers directly to emergency services.

The family's ordeal shows that more work is needed to educate consumers about how VoIP emergency services work, said Mark Goldberg of telecom consulting firm Mark H. Goldberg and Associates Inc.

At the end of last year, nearly 15 per cent of Canadian households used cable or VoIP phone services, according to Statistics Canada. It's not the first time that a VoIP customer has called 911 and failed to get help.

"There's going to need to be a lot more communications from the VoIP industry," Mr. Goldberg said.

Elijah was born prematurely in October of 2006. He had a history of heart and lung problems and underwent surgical procedures, but was "perfectly healthy" up until the incident on Tuesday night, according to his family.

Their nightmare began when Elijah woke up crying. His aunt went in to check on him and noticed that his left leg and hand were quivering. She called his mother, Khadija, into the room.

The aunt called 911, but when nobody answered after five rings, she hung up and sought the help of a neighbour. Then she received a call from what she believed was 911 asking if she had called.

She provided the Calgary address, and the person on phone replied: "Okay, we are arranging it right away, so stay on the phone." The line got disconnected, but Ms. Luck believed an ambulance was on the way.

Meanwhile, a neighbour administered CPR, and as time passed and no ambulance appeared, another neighbour called 911 on his home telephone service from cable firm Shaw Communications Inc.

Five minutes and 43 seconds later, an ambulance was at the residence and paramedics administered advanced life support on the way to hospital on Elijah, who was already in cardiac arrest. But it was too late and the youngster was pronounced dead.

The Lucks say that up to 40 minutes may have elapsed before help arrived, but that nobody was watching the clock. The family is wondering whether the toddler would still be alive if an ambulance had arrived sooner.

"We're extremely compassionate of what happened with the family," Comwave president Yuval Barzakay said.

Comwave is still trying to sort out that night's events. The Luck family's call was routed to a third-party call centre in Concord, Ont. Comwave had 10 staff members handling 911 calls across Canada.

According to Mr. Barzakay, the network automatically reconnected the call after the initial failed attempt to contact 911. He couldn't yet say how many rings went unanswered.

The worker at the call centre had a hard time understanding the caller because of a language barrier, Mr. Barzakay said, and relied on the Mississauga address on file and dispatched an ambulance there. He added that customers are encouraged to stay on the phone, but in this case, the caller hung up.

"There was indeed difficulty," Mr. Barzakay said. "Whether it was from hysterics on the call, I'm not sure."

But he acknowledged that the family wasn't to blame. "Clearly, the customer is entitled to receive 911 the moment they press 911."

Elijah's mother said the family moved to Calgary from Mississauga in March of 2006. They changed their mailing address and receive bills in Calgary, but were never told they needed a separate 911 address change.

"I think they are covering their tracks," the mother said. "I'm telling you my son would have survived if the ambulance had come on time."

Mr. Barzakay said Comwave is compliant with the federal telecom regulator's 911 rules for VoIP providers. He said the VoIP industry is moving toward enhanced 911 services.

A spokesman for the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said Thursday that it is following the incident and examining whether the 911 rules were followed.

Calgary Emergency Medical Services is now investigating the routing of the original call.

EMS spokesman Stuart Brideaux pointed out that during an emergency, it's easy to lose track of time, adding that it's "impossible to say" whether the outcome would have been different if the ambulance had arrived sooner.

Report Typo/Error

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular