Canada’s Northwest Territories launching 911 emergency service Monday

The territorial government has been working to bring 911 to the N.W.T. since the winter of 2017. It will be available in every community in the territory. (Mario De Ciccio/Radio Canada)
Starting on Monday, people in the Northwest Territories, Northern Canada who find themselves in an emergency will be able to get help by dialling 911.

The long-awaited fire, police and medical dispatch service is set to go live, territory-wide, on Nov. 4.

The N.W.T. government has been working to bring the widely-recognized emergency service number to the territory since the winter of 2017. The legislative assembly passed its 911 legislation last March.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a lifelong resident of Yellowknife or somebody just coming in to visit — 911 is universally known as a means to access emergency services,” said Eleanor Young, deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs. She said the department has been testing the 911 system for more than a month.

There have been many instances over the years in which people in the territory have called 911 in an emergency, only to find out the number doesn’t work.

“Having 911 service would have improved response times, and in some cases even saved lives,” Alfred Moses, a former minister of Municipal and Community Affairs, said in the legislature last June.

Residents can expect to get an informational package promoting the new service in the mail next week. The government didn’t send these mail-outs earlier because they didn’t want to “create a false expectation” that the number was up and running when it wasn’t, said Young.

Eleanor Young, deputy minister for Municipal and Community Affairs, said her department expects some ‘growing pains’ during the initial stages of the 911 rollout. (Submitted by Eleanor Young)

The new number will also be advertised on signs in buildings and on all-season roads within cell service areas.

Communities’ current emergency numbers will remain operational for the first little while, as people adjust to 911, said Young.

How it will work

There will be at least one operator available to take calls around the clock, Young told Yellowknife city council on Monday.

The department expects about 78 emergency calls will be made in the territory each day, she said. The department may add staff, if it proves necessary.

Young said the 911 operator will speak English and French. They’ll also be able to connect with interpreters in all nine of the territory’s official Indigenous languages, “subject to the availability of the interpreter,” said the department.

A person who dials 911 will be connected with an operator who will gather basic information, such as the location and nature of the emergency. The operator will then connect the caller to the nearest appropriate emergency service. A caller will never be put on hold, assured Young.

Right now, only Yellowknife has an emergency dispatch system. In the capital city, a call transfer from 911 to the proper emergency service is expected to take between 13 and 40 seconds.

To have it here, finally, we’re really excited that this is rolling out.

Eleanor Young, deputy minister of Municipal and Community Affairs

“In Yellowknife, we will be working with the existing dispatch system through the Yellowknife fire department,” said Young. In other communities, she said, the 911 operator will call the local health centre, fire department or RCMP detachment.

In communities that don’t have ambulances, the operator will be able to offer guidance for “self-rescue,” said Young — “how to look after yourself and get yourself to a health centre.”

There are also protocols for people who may be calling for help while out on the land, she said. Operators will be able to provide some guidance on how to stabilize an injured person and get them into a community with health services.

Earlier in the 911 implementation process, there were some concerns about how people in communities that don’t use addresses will communicate their location to the 911 operator.

Young said on Tuesday that this shouldn’t be an issue.

“911 is a dispatch system that’s accessing systems that currently exist in the community,” she said. “Right now, if you call into the fire department in the community and you say ‘X person’s house is on fire,’ the fire department knows whose house that is.”

Young expects some “growing pains” during the initial stages of the 911 rollout.

“We will continue to evolve this to be appropriate and work well for the territory,” she said. “But just to have it here, finally, we’re really excited that this is rolling out.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Mother from Arctic Canada wants investigation after medical travel debacle, CBC News

Finland: Lapland’s sick leave, accidental injury rates among highest in Finland, Yle News

United States: Indigenous students in Alaska get hands-on medical experience at nursing camp, Alaska Public Media

Sidney Cohen, CBC News

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