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$150M toward texting, but no new staff in B.C. funding to 911 service

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The B.C. government has pledged $150 million to upgrade the province's aging 911 system with new technology that will allow people to report emergencies by text message, but acknowledges the lump-sum funding won’t improve response times.

Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said the investment will help municipalities, which are responsible for providing local 911 services, transition to the Next Generation 911 system that has been federally mandated for use across Canada by March 2025. 

"When people are faced with a life-threatening emergency situation – when they or their loved ones are frightened and hurting – they count on an accessible, reliable 911 system that connects them to the help that they urgently need," Farnworth said at a news conference Wednesday.

"That’s why we're taking action to help keep people safe and improve emergency response."

STAFFING CRISIS CONTINUES

While texting will help someone make discreet contact and location services will help first responders, the time callers spend waiting for help will not improve with the next-gen funding.

“On the one hand, it's exciting, but at the same time, we are struggling to meet the need when it comes to just voice transmissions,” said Donald Grant, president of Emergency Communications Professionals of BC.

“We have to put boots on the ground.”

E-Comm 911 is a non-profit agency with a massive board of directors, including police, fire and municipal governments that pay for its operations and have been growing increasingly frustrated by long waits reported by citizens calling for emergency help. Staff turnover is considerable, with a third-party review finding E-Comm has only half of the personnel it should have, further contributing to burnout.

“The funding model needs to be looked at; we need to look at the staffing situation,” said Grant, pointing out a person still needs to analyze a text or other information and determine who to dispatch.

“If there aren't enough people to answer the phones, to receive these photos, to receive these videos, to receive these text messages, that means that people are waiting on hold in the worst moments of their lives and people aren't getting the help that they need.”

When asked about operational funding to support the 911 service, Farnworth said it’s a municipal responsibility, but added the province is working closely with the Union of BC Municipalities on the issue.

BENEFITS OF THE TECHNOLOGY

Beyond offering the option of communicating by text, Next Generation 911 will eventually allow people to send multimedia files and use their devices to share their location, though text messages are the first step and have been in the testing phase since 2021. It also allows victims of domestic violence to communicate confidentially.

"This is about making it easier and much more efficient for people to contact 911 using the technology they use today," Farnworth said.

The majority of the provincial funding will be provided to E-Comm, B.C.'s biggest 911 services provider, for technological upgrades, while $60 million will be provided to the Union of B.C. Municipalities to help with staffing, training and other costs.

CTV News pointed out that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is compelling provinces to update the system, and that B.C. was a late adopter of the AlertReady text alert system, asking Farnworth if the province’s Public Safety Ministry is doing an analysis to see if there were any other technological adoptions that should happen.

“We use technology and ensuring the technology around notification, for example, is able to operate the way we need it to in British Columbia,” Farnworth replied. “We’ve made significant improvements in those areas.” 

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