The Yukon government today announced plans to move its current 911 call centre to a newer facility and hire and train more staff. It’s allocating $1 million as part of its goal to expand basic 911 service to the communities.
The move to the emergency response centre, which has sat largely unused atop Two Mile Hill since its completion in fall 2013, will eventually see dispatch operators connecting directly with residents hundreds of kilometres beyond the current Whitehorse-area catchment.
The move comes in the wake of criticism from the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) around government “lagging” on 911 implementation.
Yukon RCMP Chief Supt. Peter Clark said the revamped operation “improves community safety through dissemination of real-time information and the co-ordination of medical, fire and police responders.”
The RCMP operates the territory’s current 911 call centre on behalf of the territorial government.
“We are making a substantial commitment this year to expand basic 911 service to rural communities by July 2016,” Community Services Minister Currie Dixon said today.
“We’ve continued to work with our partners – Northwestel, the Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs, the Association of Yukon Communities and the RCMP – to make progress on expanding 911 and this move is another important step.”
Pending legislative approval in the spring sitting, the government will drop $334,000 on the move from its current location downtown and outfit the centre with communications and support equipment.
It also plans to invest $733,000 for hiring and training new staff.
The transition to the new emergency response centre will not affect services in the Whitehorse 911 catchment, the government said.
The 80-square-kilometre area includes Mendenhall, Marsh Lake, Mount Lorne and Fox Lake.
“The Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs is very pleased to see continued progress in expanding lifesaving 911 service to all Yukon communities,” association president Jim Regimbal said.
“We know it’ll take some time to get the system up and running so, for now, we urge all Yukoners to make sure that they know their local emergency numbers.”
As it stands, people in emergency scenarios beyond Whitehorse can dial one of three seven-digit numbers, which differ in each community, to reach one of the three responders.
“When someone’s in an emergency situation, they might not recall the proper number to call,” the fire chief said last year.
“It also helps to have a dispatcher asking the right questions on the other end and to alleviate that panic.”
Officers are not always available to receive calls, a defect basic 911 service aims to remedy next year.
Regimbal has noted the communities would not be getting the enhanced 911 service granted larger urban centres, receiving only the no-frills version.
One difference between the two is that under the basic service, callers must tell the dispatcher where they are; the enhanced service includes caller display, pinpoints their locations and registers the information automatically.
The head of the CRTC’s B.C. and Yukon district noted cable lines do not reach many communities in the North. That means microwave, satellite and cellular technology comes into play.
“And the minute you start intermixing different technologies from one end to the other, you lose certain abilities,” said CRTC Commissioner Stephen Simpson.
Someone making an emergency call via Skype might have a “nomadic” IP address, meaning it’s assigned to a mobile device rather than a fixed residence.
“It’s a problem of technology consistency. And it’s exacerbated in the North,” Simpson said.
Until now the territorial government has been “behind the curve” on 911 service, he stated last year.
“We’re not happy that the Yukon has been lagging behind in implementing this,” Simpson said of Yukon-wide “interim” 911 service, a plan abandoned in the last few months in favour of expediting basic 911 service.
“But it’s been tough because of geography and a mixed bag of technology in smaller regions. It isn’t like they weren’t trying,” he told the Star Dec. 8.
A CRTC decision approved last December provided a temporary solution for emergency callers in rural communities by allowing residents to dial 911 outside of the Whitehorse area and reach responders through an automated recording.
Callers would have been directed to dial 1 for police, 2 for the fire department or 3 for paramedics, said a CRTC spokesperson.
If local responders did not answer, the call would have been forwarded to the nearest RCMP detachment or the Whitehorse 911 dispatch centre.
“They had this idea that they could put a stopgap measure in place until the full system is up and running, and they ran smack dab into our regulations,” Simpson recalled.
The government today acknowledged the CRTC’s “unexpected conditions attached” to any interim automated 911 service, and opted to hold on to the current system until basic 911 can be instituted next year.
“It is now up to the Yukon government to fulfill its commitment and implement basic 911 service throughout the territory as soon as possible,” said Peter Menzies, CRTC’s vice-chairman of telecommunications, in a release last year.
Wayne Potoroka, president of the Association of Yukon Communities said “effective local emergency response services are essential to rural Yukon’s local governments.
“The expansion of 911 will benefit local residents, travellers and visitors to our communities because they’ll have one number to dial for help.”