The head of the company that handles 911 calls in B.C. compares the pending modernization of its system to the replacement of rotary phones with smart-phones.
But he also warns against excessive expectations.
Oliver Grüter-Andrew, president and chief executive officer of E-Comm, made the comparison during a clinic held Thursday at the Union of British Columbia Municipal annual conference in Vancouver.
Using the equivalents of apps, the system can generate data to help emergency crews allocate resources more effectively when responding to incidents.
“So very fundamentally, NG911 is a technology change, but it is very, very big technology change,” Grüter-Andrew said.
While users can still use it to just make emergency calls, they will also be able to send texts, images and videos. It will also help emergency crews identify the location of callers and allow for cross-country connections.
“That’s not to mention the potential to have more creative ways of contacting emergency services in the kind of larger-scale emergencies that we have seen — the fires, the floods, the storms — that we anticipate to have more of in the future.”
The new system is mandated by the federal government and expected to go live in 2025. But its potential also raises questions.
“So there are some things that come out of the box,” he said. “(But) just as with an iPhone 15 or any such device, once you have it, you need to figure out how you start using it.”
“Which apps are you going to buy? How many can you afford to buy? Which one makes sense, will the other make sense…so there are those conversations that need to take place.”
E-Comm answers 911 calls for 25 regional districts in British Columbia. It takes calls and dispatches services for 33 police and 40 fire agencies, as well as all RCMP detachments.
In March 2023, the province announced $90 million for E-Comm to complete its transition to NG911, with another $60 million for municipalities to assist their transition.
Grüter-Andrew said it will take ingenuity and additional resources to fund the new resource.
“And that’s part of the what we are advocating for with the concept of a call-answer levy (on cellphones) to say we do need some kind of a funding stream to be able to release that potential in our community.”
On Wednesday, UBCM delegates endorsed a resolution calling for such a levy, with supporters noting most 911 calls come from cellphones.
Coun. Craig Hodge of Coquitlam said such a levy — which already exists in eight other provinces and territories — would provide the necessary funding to take full advantage of the NG911’s potential. Hodge noted that municipalities are responsible for delivering 911 services but have limited means to set standards and manage revenues in the absence of a universal governance system. Some raise funds through property taxes, others by charging landlines, he said.
Hodge said such a levy amounts to a monthly fee, not a call-by-call fee.
While Grüter-Andrew said he does not know how much money such a fee could raise, it ranges roughly from just under $1 to just over $1.
“We are still charging to the first half of the bar,” he said. “We are just in Year Two of the project. We just about implemented that fundamental technology that is needed and then it is rolling out to the regional districts,” he said.
Grüter-Andrew also warned the technology is only as good as the supports around it.
“It will not help put more paramedics and police officers on the ground,” he said. “It will not increase the number of ambulances. It will not increase the number of mental health professionals being able to answer calls. All of those things need to happen separately and distinctly, but it is something that can help us get those things rights and being more effective and efficient in the way we invest in those additional public safety services.”
The resolution endorsed by delegates concerning 911 also called on the province to integrate mental health call options within the 911 framework. In other words, 911 callers would be able to ask for mental health assistance on top of the available options for fire, police and ambulance.
“One of the things that we are hearing in all sectors, out in the community, is that police are probably not the best way to respond to emergency health call,” Hodge said.
“By putting this option right up front, when you call 911, it gives us the ability to potentially queue those calls off, so that they are not just by default going to the police…we believe that this will make a big improvement as we move toward dealing with emergency mental health issues.”