CRTC will look at future of 911 services with use of new technologies in mind

Text messages, videos and even tweets are some of the new technologies that could be used to contact 911 that the federal broadcast regulator may have to consider as it looks at ways to improve the emergency service.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is asking Canadians, especially emergency responders, for ideas on how to improve 911 service in light of changing technology.

The next generation of 911 services will be a game changer, Lance Valcour of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group said Monday.

“Currently, if you want 911 services, you have to phone,” said Valcour, executive director of the Ottawa-based group.

Right now, you can’t send a tweet to 911 to get help, Valcour said.

“But also in the future it will be video to 911, photographs to 911, potentially social media to 911,” Valcour said.

Text messaging to 911 is being tested for the hearing and voice impaired.

The CRTC noted that thousands of Canadians rely on 911 service every year.

“As telecommunications networks evolve and adopt new technologies, we all have an interest in ensuring that the system continues to meet Canadians’ needs,” CRTC commissioner Tim Denton said in a statement.

The CRTC said it will do research on 911 services in light of the telecom industry’s move to next-generation wireless networks based on Internet Protocol.

The federal telecom regulator will also look at the performance and adequacy of the technology currently used by 911 systems. It will review the findings of the public consultation by the end of next May.

Telecom analyst Mark Goldberg said people don’t always realize that these new technologies don’t connect into the 911 system.

“When people see certain things, they’re not necessarily calling 911, they’re tweeting it,” said Goldberg of Mark H. Goldberg & Associates Inc. Telecommunications Consulting in Thornhill, Ont.

The CRTC will want to take a look at 911 services in an era of social media, Goldberg said.

“Should I be able to send an email? Should there be a 911 website? Should there be a 911 app on a tablet?” he added.

Valcour said there are data storage and privacy issues for emergency responders for next generation 911 services.

There will also be costs to the next generation of 911 service, he said, estimating it could be as much as a 30 per cent increase in staffing in 911 centres.

If a citizen one day sends a photo or video of an accident to 911, everything has to work to be able to respond and save lives, Valcour said.

“We have to engineer our systems so that they are mission critical,” said Valcour, whose organization is managed by managed the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada.

The CRTC said commissioner Denton will conduct research on 911 services in light of the telecommunications system’s evolution to next-generation networks based on Internet Protocol. These networks are faster and usually handle more data.

The Canadian Wireless Telecommunications Association said more than half of 911 calls in urban centres now come from cellphones.

“We recognize, and Canadians do, that cellphones are a life line,” said association spokesman Marc Choma.

Since 2010, cellphone users calling 911 have had a more precise location of their whereabouts, he said.

The CRTC gave Canada’s wireless carriers until February 1, 2010, to provide the improved 911 service after several people who called for help from cellphones died because emergency dispatchers couldn’t find them.

Emergency services can locate cellphone callers using either GPS technology on their phones or through the use of cell towers, or a combination of both, and have the phone’s callback number.