Another delay won’t snag the territory-wide 9-1-1 service coming online next Monday.
That’s the message Eleanor Young, deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), told Yellowknife city councillors peppering her with questions over staffing, organizational structure and various emergency scenarios and mishaps.
Young said the service, which will be headquartered in Yellowknife, expects 78 daily calls, to be fielded by a single dedicated operator working a 12-hour shift, for the round-the-clock service.
Councillor Shauna Morgan was nevertheless “concerned” a week ahead of the program’s roll out.
“Would you ever consider delaying the start date if you felt you weren’t ready to go next Monday,” she asked. “Or is it there’s no going back now, you’re definitely starting next Monday?”
Young said there was nothing “putting life (or) safety at risk to prevent implementation.” The program will be updated as warranted and concerns will be dealt with as they come up, she said.
Development of the system began in 2017, although discussions of a 9-1-1 service have been in discussion for more than two decades. The original roll-out date of June 30 was pushed back earlier this year.
On Monday, 9-1-1 dispatchers will connect callers with emergency services already available in their community. Old emergency numbers will continue to be operational. The new 9-1-1 service will connect callers with these local services once it ascertains their location and emergency.
Operators may also provide first aid guidance over the phone until help arrives. They’ll be bilingual in French and English, with additional interpretation services offered in Indigenous languages.
City councillors, nonetheless, shared some lingering concerns with GNWT officials.
For one, a committee, which will become operational next week, oversees the program but has yet to find all its members — that is, a required community representative — despite roll out taking place Monday. Coun. Niels Konge said a month is usually required to fill similar positions.
Morgan also asked if the elapsed time on each call was realistic. She was concerned with time elapsed between a 9-1-1 operator’s response and connecting the caller with local services.
In response, Young said the program will look to potentially connect local dispatch operators upon the call, though Morgan said it’s “critical” that this element be determined before 9-1-1 goes live.
She also questioned the assumed call scripts that officials shared with councillors. When a resident’s home is burning, for example, the department estimates that the call will be short because the caller will say something like: “My house is one fire!”
“If I was on the phone with 9-1-1 and someone told me, ‘tell me exactly what happened,’ I would interpret that to mean, tell a very long and detailed story of exactly what happened. Which would take more than three words,” Morgan said.
Additionally, Couns. Konge, Cynthia Mufandaedza and Robin Williams noted that multiple calls for high-visibility emergencies may overload the system.
Konge was more blunt, and called the system “completely understaffed.
“In Yellowknife, when there’s a fire, they don’t get one phone call. They get half a dozen phone calls. If you have a fire, and someone who’s having a heart attack in another community — 78 calls — do you expect you’re going to hire more people?” he asked.
“Or are you really just hoping this is going to be enough?”
Young said the program had studied the recent roll out of 911 in Newfoundland to assist its efforts, and would also be continuously evaluating its operations to address concerns as they appear.
Overall, the 911 service had “done its homework,” she said.
In a follow-up interview the following day, MACA spokesperson Jay Boast told Yellowknifer there will always be one 9-1-1 dispatcher and one medical response dispatcher “in the room at any given time.”
A MED-response nurse will also support the system by initiating call-backs during high volume calls. Additionally, there is a relief staff pool available. Plus, Young mentioned a manager who could potentially provide support during regular work hours.
“Regardless, emergency dispatcher utilization (time on active phone calls) is tracked in real time as is full call analytics. There are GNWT processes in place to increase staff on an indeterminate basis through the GNWT business planning process if demonstrated through operational statistics,” Boast wrote to Yellowknifer via email.
The program’s annual budget is $1,417,000, he stated.