NG 911 – Asking all the right questions

The CRTC is asking all the right questions in its Notice of Consultation on Next Generation 911. The question for me is who can answer them?

First, I congratulate the Commission for the serious way in which it is approaching 9-1-1. It is holding a significant public hearing, set for January 17th, 2017. It is asking comprehensive questions that invite large-scale responses.

Second, I reckon that the questions which are being asked will catalyze the disparate players in the 9-1-1 universe to come together to answer them. So at a stroke the CRTC may be summoning into existence the forces that have not yet fully coalesced in this area.

It is with organization that I concern myself, because without organization, a national (not federal, but nationwide) response to the challenges of transiting to IP-based (Internet Protocol) systems will be less efficient, effective and swift than it might otherwise be. Without in the least affecting provincial jurisdiction, there needs to be a body of policy-types who can talk, plan, consider, exchange ideas, and otherwise concern themselves with the transition to IP, and what that will mean.

The major finding of my Inquiry into NG9-1-1 of 2013 was that a tsunami of technological change was about to envelop 9-1-1 and that the institutional framework for handling it – aside from the CRTC’s jurisdiction over carriers – barely existed. There exists at this time no commonly accepted forum for interprovincial coordination of thinking and action about 9-1-1. The Senior officials responsible for emergency management (SOREM), an interprovincial body that is gathered under the umbrella of Public Safety Canada, sniffed at the issue in 2013 and turned it down.

Since that time, a group of volunteers called the Coalition of the Willing, chaired by Diane Pelletier of the New Brunswick provincial 9-1-1 organization, has met monthly to discuss how to advance standards and policies for NG9-1-1. The Coalition of the Willing (COW for short) is an assemblage of provincial officials, first responders, and 9-1-1 dispatch people. In Diane’s words, they do NG9-1-1 “off the corner of their desks”.

The great advantage of the CRTC is that it exists: it is thinking, acting and regulating. When it comes to all the matters that fall under provincial jurisdiction: dispatch, first responders, emergency warnings, plus linkages to hospitals and emergency management, technology transitions and everything else you could think of, the lack of any sort of national policy body thinking and talking about NG9-1-1 is a huge problem.

Thanks to a grant from CIRA’s Community Investment Program, my colleague Philip Palmer and I spent the past year in efforts to find or create such a group. We think we have a strong candidate for such a role but first I want to explain the scale of difficulties.

1. Provinces do not necessarily talk to each other.

2. First responder organizations have rivalrous mandates: cops, firemen and first aid people are in different national and provincial organizations.

3. It often occurs that provincial officials in charge of emergency management are late in their careers, so turnover can be rapid. By the time someone has seized the total picture, they have retired.

4. From 9-1-1 call to dispatch through police fire and first aid response, to emergency management: it frequently occurs that people do not see that all these activities are on a continuum of response, from individuals seeking help at one end to collective response to disasters at another. People in this area are not compelled to see themselves as part of a whole, or as all in business together.

5. Outside of the CRTC, the major group involved has been Public Safety Canada. For whatever reasons, that Ministry has not picked up the ball and run with it. It might take more action in the new federal regime. We can only hope so.

It will be necessary to find or create some body that will cause the provincial jurisdictions to act in this area. A great deal of the transition to NG9-1-1 is outside federal telecom jurisdiction. The CRTC is doing its part to bring a positive response on the part of the players in the game, just by asking its questions. A hearing may catalyze groups to appear and declare themselves.

In future postings I hope to say more about progress in linking first responders and provincial officials to each other. Canada needs a forum for considering, planning and acting on those large areas of provincial jurisdiction included in the spectrum of issues by 9-1-1, dispatch, emergency response, the linkages among them and to health care.


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