By Douglas Quan, Postmedia News December 27, 2013
Text-based 911 service will become available for deaf Canadians in some parts of the country in 2014. Other parts of Canada, however, may have to wait until 2015.
Canadians in some parts of the country will likely be able to access 911 emergency services using text messaging starting next year, but others may have to wait until well into 2015. Advocates say the delays are “unacceptable” and a matter of life and death.
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission imposed a deadline of Jan. 24, 2014 for all telephone and wireless companies to upgrade their networks to support “T911” service and officials say companies are on track to meet that deadline.
However, 911 call centres across the country also need to upgrade their systems so that they’re compatible with the networks. Municipalities and provinces have told the CRTC that the call centres need more time to complete the software and hardware upgrades and training.
“Based on the information provided to the commission by municipal and provincial governments, their (call centres) will become ready to provide T911 across the country in a time frame that ranges from March 2014 to Sept 2015,” said Celine Legault, a CRTC spokeswoman in an email.
While the CRTC can impose deadlines on telephone and wireless companies, it cannot do so with 911 call centres. The result is that text-based 911 service will roll out at different times from province to province, even within provinces.
CRTC officials said estimates they’ve received show the service is expected to be active in all call centres in Manitoba, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island by early to mid 2014 and by the end of 2014 in Saskatchewan.
All call centres in B.C., Alberta and New Brunswick may not be ready until early 2015 and not until the latter part of 2015 in Ontario.
Officials noted, however, that individual call centres may be ready ahead of those dates.
Advocates for the deaf say they’re unhappy with the staggered release of the service.
The federal government needs to step in and mandate 911 access across Canada to address the “voluntary patchwork” of service from municipalities and townships, said Frank Folino, president of the Canadian Association of the Deaf.
“It’s unacceptable having this much of a delay,” said Chris Kenopic, president and CEO of the Canadian Hearing Society.
“This has been something we’ve been advocating for and asking for for years. … Anybody who is deaf, hard of hearing or has speech challenges are considered a lower priority. Why has it taken so long? Why hasn’t the system changed?”
When the system is up and running, a deaf, hard of hearing or speech-challenged person will have to register for the service with their wireless service provider.
When that person dials 911 on their cellphone, the call centre will automatically get a notification telling staff to communicate with the caller via text messaging.
Trial runs conducted in Toronto, the Peel region of Ontario, Montreal, and Vancouver were said to be successful.
Currently, options are limited if deaf Canadians need to access emergency help. In some jurisdictions, they might be able to reach 911 using teletypewriters or TTY devices connected to landlines in their home. Outside of the home, however, they’re out of luck.
“Let’s say I’m on the road or I’m out and not in my house. I’m hoping there’s a hearing person who’s near me to be able to make that call on my behalf,” Kenopic said. “I don’t have it accessible to me to directly call them.”
Mobile devices are “the choice of communication” for the majority of the individuals in the deaf community, said Wayne Nicholson, president of the Ontario Association of the Deaf.
“Deaf people should have equivalent functions in communication, especially in emergencies.”
Emergency call centre officials told Postmedia News that there are a number of technological, logistical and funding hurdles they need to overcome before they can roll out the service.
Tracy Finn, a 911 emergency voice services coordinator in Toronto, compared the undertaking to switching from analog to digital cable.
“We have to make sure we do it right and that there’s proper testing,” she said. “It’s not as simple as let’s switch a cable.”
Finn declined to provide an estimate for when her call centre might be ready.
Erin Madden, a communications strategist with Public Safety Communications in Calgary, said until the telephone and wireless companies complete their upgrades, 911 call centres won’t know everything they need to do to make sure their systems are aligned.
“There’s a lot of unanswerables,” she said.
The city recognizes the deaf community has been underserved and has made it a priority to get text-911 service up and running within the first quarter of 2014, she said.
Call centre officials in Vancouver said they, too, hope to have the service available within the first part of 2014, while officials in Montreal said they hope to be ready by fall of 2014. Officials in Ottawa and Regina said they hope to be on board sometime in 2014 but couldn’t be more specific. Edmonton officials were unable to provide any estimate.
Advocates for the deaf say messaging surrounding the planned roll out of text-911 service has been poor and that the staggered launch of the service across the country is likely to create even more confusion.
Marc Choma, a spokesman for the Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association, said the association plans to launch a website in the New Year that will let the public know when text-911 service becomes available in different parts of the country.
The CRTC says, for now, it has no plans to expand text-911 access to the general public.
Estimates for when text-911 service will be available at all call centres in each province:
BC: early 2015
Alberta: early 2015
Saskatchewan: late 2014
Manitoba: March 2014
Ontario: September 2015
Quebec: Late 2014
New Brunswick: early 2015
Nova Scotia: mid 2014
PEI: early 2014
Note: some call centres may be ready ahead of the estimates shown
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