911 service upgrades complicated in South Okanagan-Similkameen

911 upgrades coming

Mandated upgrades to 911 services are coming to the South Okanagan in the next few years, and local politicians from rural areas are hoping to ensure their community's issues are addressed as changes get underway.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has directed all 911 services to upgrade to "NG911," meaning "next-generation," by 2025.

The new model will see local call centres ready to accept voice and real-time text messaging services, theoretically allowing callers seeking emergency response to provide a clearer picture of what exact help is needed.

In a presentation to the Regional District of Okanagan Similkameen board of directors Thursday, Stephen Thatcher, VP of E-Comm, the company which is contracted to manage 911 calls in the district, said their focus now is getting a local network in place to support such service expansion.

"That ultimate ability to send live photos and live feeds will clearly be a boon but we need to get the network in place, first and foremost," Thatcher said, explaining they are working with Telus.

The government has recently injected a $90 million grant into E-Comm's coffers to forward this project, which Thatcher assured the board will mean one-time implementation locally costs will be minimal.

"That doesn't mean that it won't be an additional cost to the regional district, you'll still pay your day-to-day operating costs," Thatcher added.

"And [we also] anticipate our operating costs of the NG network to be higher than they were for the [existing] E911 because of heightened security technology costs and also the fact that that volume of data will require us probably to do more work."

Princeton Mayor Spencer Coyne said Upper Similkameen communities are frustrated by current 911 services.

He cited a number of recent incidents that had hours-long response from requested specific emergency services, like highway police or EHS, after multiple calls from emergency responders already on scene.

"The people on scene know the most about the incident that's happening. And if they're requesting additional resources, those resources need to be dispatched not decided upon by somebody on the other side of the phone at that time, especially if it's highway rescue and we have somebody trapped in a vehicle,” Coyne said.

“We have a disconnect somewhere and we need that disconnect fixed.”

Thatcher said he couldn’t speak to specifics about accountability for those delays, since likely they came from police rather than citizen 911 calls through E-Comm, but said small communities with small volunteer fire departments or impermanent road rescue organizations with no dispatch model are often an issue.

“It's being discussed … to try to figure out whether there is a solution, because a lot of these smaller organizations are under the radar and there's no fixed way of getting a hold of them,” Thatcher explained.

“So I understand exactly the problem you're describing. Finding the solution that fits everywhere is a little bit more challenging.”

Thatcher's colleague Julie de Decker also said they are aware of rural area cell tower outages that have recently impacted residents' ability to access emergency services.

"Obviously, these outages have been a real concern for for everyone," de Decker said.

"We are working ... to make an application for intervention with the CRTC when it comes to outages, and in fact, all the different scenarios and impacts of these outages. We are capturing [it all] in a document that we're working on currently for submission to the CRTC by March 24."

Sandra Follack, deputy fire chief in Kelowna, was also in attendance at the meeting. The regional dispatch centre in Kelowna takes any 9-1-1 calls for fire-related issues in collaboration with 50-plus local fire departments and their 911 services throughout the South Okanagan, Similkameen, North and Central Okanagan, and adjacent Boundary areas.

Follack clarified that decisions about what services to send in response to calls do not come from her team.

"If dispatch is asked to do something operationally they do not make a decision. They are the sender and receiver of all information. If they're asked to do something they comply,” Follack said.

"We never operationally change or make a determination on something."

The dispatch centre in Kelowna operates 24/7 with no fewer than two dispatchers on duty at a time.

Troy Clifford, representative of the Ambulance Paramedics of BC, rounded out the visitors at Thursday's meeting, telling the RDOS board he hears their concerns about EHS response, noting a longtime shortage in ambulance staffing.

"People are not getting ambulances in their time of need. We're better now, but we're still not where we need to be," he said, explaining he expects new agreements with the government will help with recruitment of more full-time paramedics, but it’s still slow moving.

He urged local government authorities to keep the pressure on higher government to provide services.

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