By Jessica Lovell
With the speed at which technology is changing, it might seem surprising that 9-1-1 operators are still taking calls the old-fashioned way – no texts and definitely no instant messaging.
“With today’s technological advancements, it would be viewed as a bit of an antiquated system,” said Guelph Police Chief Bryan Larkin.
But it’s a system that’s soon to change.
The local 9-1-1 system will be getting an update thanks to legislation governed by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC).
The Guelph Police Service is preparing for a switch to an NG911, or Next Generation 911, system, with phase one to be implemented in late 2014 or early 2015.
“It’s an exciting transformation of the 9-1-1 system,” said Larkin.
What it means in the first phase is that members of the community who are hearing impaired will be better able to communicate with emergency operators, he said.
In the first phase, the majority of 9-1-1 callers won’t notice a difference.
“It works no differently,” said Jonathan Green, manager of information systems services for the Guelph Police Service.
But members of the community who are hearing impaired will be able to register for a service that will essentially allow them to “chat” via text message with emergency operators. “They’ll call 9-1-1, then it will open up a chat window,” Green said.
It’s a great improvement over the current TTY or teletype system that people who are hearing impaired must currently use, he said.
Phase two of the system, which has no timeline as of yet, will see that texting ability extended to all callers, and phase three will add multimedia to the mix – meaning that people will be able to send pictures and video to 9-1-1 operators, Green said.
Phase one of the changeover is expected to cost just under $135,000, which amounts to about 0.4 per cent of the 2014 operating budget, Larkin said.
The change will also come with some other cost implications related to training and implementation, he said.
And while the new system is expected to be an improvement, each phase will also come with its share of problems, said Green.
Pocket-dialing, where cellphone users inadvertently dial 9-1-1 while their phone is loose in a purse or pocket, is already an ongoing issue for emergency operators.
“It’s going to get much worse,” said Green.
“What we’re looking at is a 20 per cent increase in call volume” from pocket dials, he said.
The reason for this is essentially the technology behind the system change. With the move to NG911, the service will be switching over from an old copper-wire system to a fibre optic system, which is much faster, said Green.
Currently, people who inadvertently dial 9-1-1 have a brief moment of delay before the call connects where they can hang up. But with the new, faster system, “that 9-1-1 call will come into our centre instantly,” said Green.
He could not say how other police services are dealing with the problem, as no other service in Ontario has the NG system yet, he said.
And while texting is an improvement over TTY service, it is not the most efficient way to communicate otherwise, Green said.
It may come in handy in situations where a caller is unable to speak or where speaking could compromise a caller’s safety, but “in almost every other circumstance the voice is preferred,” he said.
Then, there are the problems associated with photos and videos.
“It’s already very emotionally taxing,” Green said of the 9-1-1 operator’s job. “Now, they’re going to send images in.”
Having to deal with images or video of potentially gruesome or traumatic events could make the job even more difficult, he explained.
The images and video are potentially useful documents, particularly for police investigations, but they also come with a storage issue.
Currently, 9-1-1 phone conversations are logged for future reference, but “a voice file is very small compared to a photo or a video,” said Green.
“Right now, it’s not uncommon if there’s a car collision, we might get eight to 10 phone calls,” he said.
These issues are part of the reason that the new system is being implemented in phases, with the first phase being updating infrastructure so it can eventually handle the latest technology, Green explained.
“Basically, we’re planning for the future,” he said.