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Canada's 911 system requires tens of millions of dollars in upgrades and is now seen to be lagging other countries, such as the United States and several European nations, in keeping up with technology.

It is a humbling turn of events for a country that was once seen to be on the leading edge.

North America's first emergency phone system was pioneered by Winnipeg nearly a half century ago. However, disputes over funding have marked the system since it began.

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In 1959, Winnipeg was an amalgam of 16 municipalities, each with at least two emergency phone numbers. That meant there were potentially 32 different numbers to remember in a crisis.

Winnipeg Alderman A.E. Bennett was among a handful of leaders who proposed a central emergency dispatch centre similar to the 999 system used in London, England. Those three digits - the precursor to North American 911 - were chosen because they could be easily remembered but were unlikely to be dialled by mistake on a rotary phone.

But Winnipeg's system was nearly halted by a fight over the cost - about $44,000 - which some municipal leaders said was too extravagant.

The idea was salvaged only when Mr. Bennett came up with a plan to hire women to answer the phones, instead of men, which allowed him to cut enough from the budget to get opposing municipalities on side.

In 1959, women could be paid $200 a month to work as dispatchers, while the salary for men was $345.

"This arrangement will not affect the efficient operation of the proposed system," Mr. Bennett assured city council in a letter that spring.

Hiring women knocked a nearly a quarter off the total budget, since labour was among the biggest costs for a 24-hour call centre.

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The 999 service launched at midnight June 21, 1959, and was soon averaging 175 calls a day. Winnipeg was almost a decade ahead of its time, since it would be another nine years before Haleyville, Alabama would create the first emergency dispatch centre in the United States.

With the new service came dubious allegations of profiteering, however.

By December 1959, people had already figured out how to make money off the new 999 system. Private ambulance companies, which Winnipeg allowed at the time, were adept at listening to the dispatch radios and racing to emergencies. Each ambulance charged a minimum of $10 per trip to the hospital, and some refused to transport people unless they could pay the fee up front.

Reports of "ambulance haggling" prompted the city to clamp down on the private operators.

Meanwhile, the city did not embrace the new service as Mr. Bennett had hoped. As winter approached that year, the debate over whether the system was necessary continued at City Hall.

The turning point came on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 22, 1959 when Bernard Potter, a 41-year-old aircraft inspector, awoke with a splitting headache. His wife complained of the same but the two thought nothing of it until their 16-year-old son Roderick walked into the room and collapsed at the foot of the bed.

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Suddenly, Mr. Potter knew what was wrong. The family had just installed a new furnace; there had to be a gas leak.

He crawled downstairs to the phone and stayed conscious long enough to dial 999 and mumble the words: "Everybody gassed. 448 Minni…"

When fire trucks arrived at the house on Minnigaffe Street, all seven members of the Potter family were pulled from the home unconscious but alive.

Almost immediately, the political mood began to shift and 999 went from being a luxury to a necessity. That incident led to talk of creating a system of dispatches across Canada.

"It is difficult now to believe that prolonged and tedious negotiations were needed to produce this," a local newspaper editorial said the following day.

Roughly a decade later, 911 became the standard for North America.

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Over the years, the system has not been perfect. Many Winnipeg residents remember a tragic - and controversial - case in 2000 when two women were murdered in a domestic dispute, despite calling 911 repeatedly.

Their pleas for help were not taken seriously, prompting a public inquiry and a subsequent overhaul of the policies governing how 911 calls are handled in the city.

Of the people who benefited from the creation of the emergency phone system, Clifford Skroopka may owe his life to the fact that Winnipeg figured out a way to pay for its 999 call centre.

A half century ago, his mother Jeanne Skroopka was preparing the laundry when she turned to find Clifford, still a toddler, drinking bleach.

"I couldn't believe it," said Ms. Skroopka, now 88, from her home in Winnipeg. "I didn't know what to do." Her timing was fortuitous, since only an hour earlier, Winnipeg had linked the 999 headquarters into the city's poison control centre.

As the ambulance sped to their home, dispatchers helped Ms. Skroopka administer first-aid.

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Mr. Skroopka, now 51, is a city worker in Winnipeg. He was not aware of his small place in Canadian history, but is grateful. "Somebody sure had a vision back then," he said.

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