The GNWT’s previously stated commitment to launch a territory-wide 911 service by June 30 “will be re-evaluated shortly to ensure that it remains valid,” said the deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA) on Tuesday.
The Standing Committee on Government Operations received a briefing about the implementation of 911 emergency services in the NWT on Tuesday.
“Given the complexity of the system and the necessity to ensure that we build it right… we will be watching all of these moving components and make sure we do it right,” said MACA deputy minister Eleanor Young.
The 911 service will have a soft launch between one month and six weeks ahead of the go-live date, Young said.
“That’s going to be our opportunity to test all of the phone trees that we’re setting up with communities to do actual phone calls, test the system, make sure it works and everything before we actually start putting the system in play and collecting fees for it,” she said.
Hopefully by the time the legislative assembly resumes sitting in May they will have a definite go-live date for the service, she said.
“And we expect we will revisit the go live date as part of that process.”
Bill 31, The Northwest Territories 911 Act passed on March 11.
“Considerable work started this past March with telephone companies who, up until now, were waiting for the 911 Act to pass,” said Minister Alfred Moses.
The passage of the legislation was necessary before any substantial work could start on their end, he said.
“With the legislation now passed…we’re well underway with the telephone companies to establish the infrastructure and the billing systems,” said Young.
But the preparatory work of telecommunications companies is beyond the GNWT’s control.
“Based on our initial discussions with the telco provider, we do think that there may be a little more time required than anticipated,” she said.
Any change to the go-live date will be communicated to residents and stakeholders well in advance, said Young.
“One of our objectives here is to be fairly comfortable with that go-live date when we announce it,” she said. “If there’s change to it we want to be fairly confident on what we’re changing it to, rather than just saying we’re going to delay it by a month and then it might take another month and it might take another month.”
With the 911 Act now passed, the focus has shifted to preparing communities and completing the system, said Moses.
“Although work remains ahead of us, the GNWT and key stakeholders are well-positioned to achieve our goal of implementing an NWT-wide 911 system,” he said.
The department will be working with community governments to ensure they thoroughly understand the new 911 system and how it relates to local emergency services.
Department officials plan to visit every community in the territory starting in late April, “to update councils with a presentation on 911 and speak to some of the local dynamics of implementation of 911 in their community,” said Young.
11 official languages
The availability of 911 services in all of the territory’s 11 official languages was a point of interest at the briefing on Tuesday.
“Can you folks explain how this service is going to work, who’s actually providing the service and whether they have contracted interpreters in all of our official languages?” asked Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly.
The 911 service will have interpreters in all the official languages and then some, said Ashley Geraghty, 911 program manager.
“Someone would call in to 911 and if they’re not able to communicate in English, then we would pull in the language line and an appropriate interpreter would be found for that language,” he said.
Interpreters will be available for “about 147” different languages he added.
“Then once we find out where the call is located, which community and what service they want, our intention at the moment is to transfer both the caller and the interpreter to the community service, because the community service may not speak that language that the caller is speaking as well,” said Geraghty.
Except in cases where dispatchers are providing medical care over the phone before emergency services arrive, this whole process can and does happen in about 80 seconds across the country, said Geraghty.
“We’re asking some very quick questions and then handing it off to the actual emergency service in the community,” he said.
Cell phone dead zones, or areas without cellular service, are another issue facing the accessibility of 911 services in the Northwest Territories.
Areas like the Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk Highway, the highway to Fort Providence and parts of the Ingraham Trail outside Yellowknife don’t have cell service, so calling it a “NWT-wide 911 system” is misleading, MLA Julie Green pointed out.
“Because if there is no cellphone coverage, then there is no way to access 911,” she said.
A map of territorial cell service coverage could be included in the awareness campaign, Geraghty said, adding that 911 services could still be accessed by satellite phones and landlines in those areas.
“If there’s a way to communicate out to the world from the individual, they can communicate with us,” he said.