Emergency measures
Fort Smith councillor wants 911 service

by Cheryl Leschasin
Northern News Services

NNSL (Apr 07/97) - Fort Smith councillor Peter Martselos says he wants a 911 service installed by NorthwesTel free of charge in his community.

The demand comes in response to the omission of Fort Smith on the map of the NWT in the new phone book.

Martselos' wish isn't likely to be realized --emergency and telephone officials say installing a 911 service is not only costly, it's complicated -- and NorthwesTel hasn't even studied the issue carefully.

Still, it's not a far-fetched idea, and it's one that other isolated communities use successfully.

Whitehorse has 911 in conjunction with the Yukon government which costs about $350,000, according to Mike Lowing, deputy fire chief in Yellowknife. There is also a surcharge of between 10 and 15 cents added to Whitehorse residents' phone bills to cover part of the cost of the service.

The service is dedicated to residents of Whitehorse and close outlying communities. But regional 911 services that cover groups of small communities have been successful, as well.

There have been talks about installing regional 911 systems in the NWT before, but questions of viability, cost and assumption of liability have hampered progress.

"A 911 service does not speed up dispatch or response time," said Lowing. "But it is helpful for younger children who can remember the number."

Currently, fire and ambulance services in the NWT are handled by individual communities -- each service having different phone numbers. Police services, again with a different phone number, are handled through regional centres.

The regional 911 model has been very successful in northern British Columbia, where communities are small and scattered, as they are in the NWT.

"The benefits are tremendous, every young person knows 911. Before, each fire department had its own phone number," said Dennis Montgomery, fire chief for the District of Mackenzie in northern B.C.

In British Columbia, all emergency calls are forwarded to regional centres, who in turn notify the closest emergency service to the caller.

B.C. enjoys an "enhanced" 911 service, which means that when a caller dials 911, the phone number and phone registration immediately come up on the emergency operators' computer screen. This service is not included in regular 911 programs.

The benefits of the enhanced system are numerous. "If an individual is an emergency situation, such as an intruder situation, the person won't have to speak, they can just dial the number," said Montgomery.

The service is also valuable to people who are unable to speak for medical or other reasons and for young children. Crank calls, meanwhile, are rare.

"It's an expensive proposition," said Montgomery. However, B.C. residents were in favor of the costly service.

Anne Grainger, director of corporate communications for NorthwesTel, said it would be impossible to give an estimate of the cost of a 911 service in the NWT without a detailed investigation.

And so far, none has been carried out.