Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office is about to test a new system that will push its 911 phone service into the 21st century.
Next-Generation 9-1-1 is a digital system that not only accepts voice calls, it will also allow emergency crews to better locate people in need, receive real-time text messages, and eventually accept pictures and video.
All of that information will come from cellphone communication.
“We’re excited to move into that direction,” said Dave Wilson, director of 911 for EMO.
He said the new technology should allow emergency crews to get to a scene faster and be armed with more information upon arrival.
“I think in the end that will help support an individual who has an emergency, ensuring we have the right emergency support going to that call.”
In 2017, the CRTC mandated that all telephone companies across the country adopt the new system to provide more than just voice service to emergency call centres that dispatch fire, police and ambulances.
On its website, the CRTC said it wants to ensure emergency services benefit from the advancements in cellphone technology.
The current 911 system was to be decommissioned and the new one put in place by 2023, but COVID-19 has pushed that deadline to 2024.
“This is the biggest change to 911 in the past 30 years,” said Kerry-Anne Murray-Bates, co-chair of a committee on Next-Generation 9-1-1 for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police. She’s also the manager of Toronto Police’s communications centre — its operators and dispatchers handle 911 calls.
“The availability of the data and how that data is going to help us, help Canadians, it’s an exciting time,” she said. “It’s just long overdue and I think we’re all going to benefit greatly from it.”
The current system is effective at tracking calls from landlines, but cellphone calls are more problematic.
Tracking a cell signal to the nearest cell tower does work, but it only gives emergency crews a general idea about location.
“It’s all about location, location, location…. We can’t send help to you unless we know exactly where you are,” said Ron Williscroft, a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. The group represents people who install and operate emergency communication systems across the country.
The new 911 system will solve that problem by tapping into a cellphone’s data to pinpoint location.
The real-time text system is also a big step forward. It will allow people to silently text information to 911 if they are in a situation where talking could put them in danger.
A similar system exists now for people who are deaf, hard of hearing or have trouble speaking. But that program needs to be set up ahead of time.
The new service will allow anyone to text 911.
The last feature that’s expected to come online will allow people to send pictures and videos to 911 operators. Williscroft said being able to transmit this kind of information becomes extremely important when dealing with an active situation.
He said having pictures of an assailant could help police locate a suspect more quickly and that could save lives. Video could help firefighters better cope with a blaze.
“They can get a better evaluation of what the size of the fire is while the response is in progress and they can send additional apparatus if they decide that it’s warranted,” said Williscroft. [There are] a lot of advantages in [having] the picture and video.”
Many of the new systems will gradually come online as the project gets closer to the CRTC’s 2024 deadline.
Nova Scotia EMO has set up a test lab to start running simulations on how to take a voice call over the new digital system. Those tests will proceed for the next year or so, according to Wilson.
Once complete, EMO will decide what software it will use to handle 911 calls.
Wilson hopes those tests will lead to a smooth transition from the old system to the new one. He expects it will cost a couple of million dollars to complete the work, but the exact cost hasn’t been determined.
“I think by moving toward NG911 they’ll be new ways for people to contact 911 and I believe it will make the service more reliable,” said Wilson.
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