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Cellphone firms ordered to fix 911 system to save lives Add to ...

Canada's telecom regulator will force the cellphone industry to upgrade the country's 911 system, which has fallen behind other parts of the world and may be contributing to deaths involving wireless calls for help.

Government officials said they would impose a February, 2010, deadline to install the necessary equipment to give 911 dispatchers the ability to locate cellular calls in an emergency.

The plan has not been disclosed to much of the telecom sector. It comes after a recent Globe and Mail investigation found there were several cases of fatal or near-fatal incidents last year alone where 911 dispatchers could not determine the location of the caller.

The technology has been used in the United States since at least 2005, and in some cases the equipment needed is made in Canada. The Globe investigation found that a key impediment to updating the 911 system was a reluctance by regulators to impose a deadline, as the United States did, to end years of industry infighting on the issue.

“I thought that this would put the matter to rest,” Paul Godin, director of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, said Tuesday. “We are concerned about the safety and security of Canadians ... that's sort of our guiding light if you wish.”

The decision came Tuesday from CRTC chairman Konrad von Finckenstein, Mr. Godin said. Further details of the plan will be made public next month.

The regulator is giving the industry a year so that wireless companies will have time to put a working system in place “throughout the country,” Mr. Godin said.

More than half of all 911 calls in Canada come from cellphones.

The regulator, wireless companies and emergency dispatchers have been stalled in a bitter debate over who should pay to upgrade the system.

The industry wants public money used, while dispatchers argue the telecom sector should be forced to dip into the 911 fees it collects from consumers, which in some cases are retained as surplus revenues by the phone companies.

The technology might have prevented the death of an 18-year-old man who froze in a wooded area of British Columbia last week.

Matt Armstrong dialled 911 after losing his bearings overnight near Williams Lake, but dispatchers could not figure out where he was.

Police found his body on New Year's Day.

Mr. Godin said the regulator will provide details about how the upgrades will be paid for when documents are made public next month. It is estimated the technology will cost at least $50-million.

The decision was welcomed by the emergency response community. Calgary RCMP Sergeant Patrick Webb said he is confident the changes will save lives.

“We often have people calling 911 on behalf of their friends and they have no idea where they are.

“Or somebody phoning and saying ‘I'm on Highway 1 and I don't know where I am.' That happens on a regular basis,” he said.

In September, RCMP in Alberta got a call from a man who had been beaten and left in a field near the town of Brooks.

Although he dialled 911 from his cellphone, the 39-year-old man did not know where he was. Police found his body two days later after using a helicopter to search the area.

“We might have saved a murder if that had been possible,” Sgt. Webb said.

In another case last January, Saskatoon dispatcher Janice Marcotte struggled for three hours to keep Garth Pratt talking as ambulances searched in vain for his overturned van. Mr. Pratt had driven off a rural road in a snowstorm but was unfamiliar with the area. When ambulances found him, he was suffering from hypothermia.

Ms. Marcotte said the changes will make the job easier for dispatchers. “It's great news,” she said. “This is better than waiting, like we have been waiting.”

The Feb. 1, 2010, deadline is also designed to give dispatch centres across the country enough time to upgrade their own equipment to process the data that will be collected by the cellphone companies on emergency calls.

Dispatch centres are funded by provinces and municipalities, depending on the jurisdiction, and will likely have to secure public funding to prepare for the revamp.

Cellphone calls are located using two primary methods: triangulation, which measures the distance and direction of the signal from multiple cellphone towers, and global positioning systems.

GPS work well in remote areas, but usually require a clear view of the sky to link up with global positioning satellites, so parking garages and office towers can pose problems.

Triangulation is effective in cities, where cell towers are often numerous, but can be less accurate in rural areas where the towers are spread out.

Since cellphone location equipment is linked to the 911 system, it works only when the emergency number is dialled.

Sgt. Webb said if police wanted to use the tracking ability for other purposes, they would need a warrant first. “The most important benefit for us would be the life-saving aspect,” he said.


1994: Noticing an increase in bad outcomes involving cellphone calls to 911, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission begins talking about the need to install equipment to locate wireless calls. The technology is still years away.

2001: The United States imposes a deadline for cellphone companies to locate the majority of 911 calls by 2005 or face hefty fines. Canada decides to let wireless companies debate the matter further before acting.

2005: Some U.S. cellphone companies are unable to meet the 911 deadline and face fines of over $1-million. The technology becomes operational across most of the country. Canada has yet to test it.

2007: More than half of all 911 calls in Canada and the United States now come from cellphones.


Jan. 16: Saskatoon dispatcher Janice Marcotte struggles to keep Garth Pratt talking as hypothermia sets in. He dialled 911 after driving off a rural road in a snowstorm. An ambulance finds him after more than three hours of searching.

Aug. 5: TruePosition, Inc., one of the largest manufacturers of cellphone location technology, announces it can now locate an average of five million 911 calls a year in the United States.

Sept. 4: Sharmarke Warsame dials 911 from his cellphone after being beaten and dumped in a field near Brooks, Alta. RCMP are unable to figure out where he is and find his body two days later after searching the area with a helicopter.

Dec. 3: The CRTC says it does not need to force a deadline on the wireless industry to resolve the 911 cellphone issue, which is bogged down in arguments over who should pay. “We're taking the Canadian approach. We think it's the right approach. It's a transition approach,” CRTC director Paul Godin says.

2009 Jan. 1: Police find the body of 18-year-old Matt Armstrong in a wooded area outside Williams Lake, B.C. He called 911 after getting lost the previous night, but dispatchers could not determine his location.

Jan 5: Former FCC adviser Brian Fontes warns Canada not to wait until the death toll mounts before fixing the problem.

Jan 6: The CRTC announces it will impose a deadline on Canadian wireless carriers to install cellphone location technology for 911 calls. “I thought that this would put the matter to rest,” Mr. Godin says.

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