CRTC tells carriers to support 911 text messages for hearing, speech impaired

Canadian wireless carriers must make changes to their networks and systems to support 911 emergency text messages from hearing and speech-impaired persons, the federal telecom regulator said Thursday.

The service would only be provided to the hearing and speech-impaired who have pre-registered for it with their wireless carrier, which must make it available within 12 months, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said.

The CRTC said access to emergency telecommunications services is critical to safety and the hearing and speech impaired don’t have full access to the 911 service.

“The commission noted that access to emergency services by hearing or speech-impaired Canadians could be improved if they were able to communicate with 911 operators using text messaging,” the CRTC said in its decision.

There will be no need for hearing or speech impaired persons to try to speak when making a 911 call.

Once registered, they would be able to call 911 in the traditional way on their cellphones, but the call would be flagged as coming from a pre-registered person with a hearing or speech impairment.

The 911 operator would respond by sending a text message to the caller, and the caller and 911 operator would continue to communicate back and forth via text messages, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission said in its decision.

The regulator also requests that carriers have a plan to inform these subscribers and the general public of the 911 text messaging service for the hearing or speech impaired, the CRTC said.

The CRTC has been asking Canadians, especially emergency responders, for ideas on how to improve 911 service in light of changing technology.

Texting for 911 service for the public at large is expected to be deployed sometime after the service is in place for the hearing and speech impaired.

The trials for this 911 service were done last spring and summer in Vancouver, Toronto, Peel Region and Montreal with hearing and speech-impaired persons who volunteered to help out.

Telus (TSX:T) participated in the trials, which involved simulated emergencies.

Spokesman Shawn Hall said there’s still a lot of technical work to do as the wireless industry and 911 operations centres work to implement the service community by community.

“Text messages cannot simply go through to 911. The systems aren’t compatible. Here in Canada, we have a found an elegant and simple solution that should really work,” Hall said.

“The text session is layered on top of the 911 voice call, so that texting happens in real time and location information is also transmitted,” he said.

The CRTC noted that wireless carriers and MTS Inc. (TSX:MBT) proposed taking more than a year to roll out the service. However, the CRTC ruled the work can be done within the time period if treated as a “high priority.”

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association also said it supports the CRTC’s decision.

“Wireless service providers are always looking for ways to improve accessibility for Canadian consumers, and we look forward to continuing our partnerships with community, government and other stakeholders in deploying this revolutionary safety tool,” president and CEO Bernard Lord said in a statement.