A federal investigation into a 911 call that sent ambulances to a home in Ontario while the family of a dying baby waited in vain three provinces away in Calgary has placed the blame on the Internet telephone company Comwave.
A series of documents, which Comwave fought for the past three months to keep confidential, have been obtained by The Globe and Mail. They say that federal regulators believe the company's call-takers didn't follow proper emergency procedures.
The botched response to the 911 call led to an ambulance being dispatched to the family's former address in Mississauga.
Letters exchanged between Comwave and the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission since the incident in April show that the regulator believes the company should be held accountable. However, Comwave disputed those claims yesterday, denying that it broke any federal rules.
Comwave sought to have the documents kept private, saying in a letter to the CRTC that it would "cause material and financial loss" if the information was made public.
In late April, the family of 18-month-old Elijah Luck phoned 911 from their Calgary home after the baby began convulsing. The call was directed to a dispatch centre used by Comwave to relay information to emergency services in various cities.
Online phone services use the Internet rather than fixed wires, making it difficult to determine where calls originate. When the family's frantic call was disconnected, Comwave's call centre sent ambulance crews to the Mississauga address it had on file for the Luck family.
However, the CRTC's letters suggest that Comwave should have immediately called the family back after the line was disconnected. As well, the regulator indicates that not enough steps were taken by the call centre, which is employed on a third-party contract, to determine the location of the emergency.
"Comwave's third-party call centre operator did not follow the proper procedures for determining a 911 caller's location, when it responded to the call," the documents say.
Immediately after the incident, Comwave said it was the responsibility of Internet phone customers to keep their addresses up to date. The Luck family says it does not know why Comwave knew to send their bills to Calgary but did not update their residential address for the call centre.
The CRTC's findings are being disputed by Comwave, which suggested the regulator is interpreting its rules differently since the tragedy.
Comwave chief executive officer Yuval Barzakay said yesterday that no regulations require a company to call back if a 911 call using Internet phone service is disconnected. Some dispatchers believe it is faster and more effective to send ambulances immediately to the address on file.
The rules set up for the industry in 2005 are ambiguous and do not state how companies should handle emergency calls, he said, noting the CRTC's reference to calling back. "It is not our interpretation of what the rules of the game were in 2005, nor is it the industry practice today," Mr. Barzakay said.
A member of the Luck family went to a neighbour's house and connected with Calgary 911 through a traditional phone line.
News of the CRTC's opinion on the matter was welcomed by Sylvia Luck, the baby's aunt. Elijah was born premature and had health problems, the family has said.
"It has been very difficult," Sylvia Luck said from Calgary. "We think we did everything right in trying to save him."
The report has also raised another concern: Even though the CRTC believes Comwave did not follow proper procedures, the regulator can do little to punish the company. "We are somewhat limited," said Paul Godin, a director general at the CRTC.
Internet phone service, also known as voice over Internet protocol (VOIP), began several years ago in Canada as a competitor to regular home phone service, and has built a significant market. About 250,000 people now use such services, which often are cheaper, although many are limited in their ability to offer 911 location information.