Mark Rendell

Don’t laugh: with NWT-wide tech investments and GNWT interest, 911 is closer than ever

Once the GNWT implementation plan is tabled in December, it's a matter of political will

After two decades of breathless announcements followed by minimal action, it might be hard to get excited about government conducting research into the NWT’s elusive 911 service. The City’s been at it since 1991, with little more than feasibility reports to show for it – the most recent, from 2009, came with a price tag of just under $50,000.

However, with improved technology and a new “implementation plan” from the Government of the Northwest Territories expected in December, things may be falling into place.

During question period on Tuesday, Municipal and Community Affairs Minister, Robert McLeod, seemed keen on the project.

“One of the things we want to make sure of before we implement … (is) all our communities have the capability to respond to any such emergencies,” he said.

“One of the reasons that we had originally (deemed 911 impossible) was our lack of telecommunication infrastructure across the Northwest Territories. I think we’ve seen in the last four or five years (phone service) has improved dramatically where you’re getting service in a lot of the small communities.”

McLeod’s statement underlined the main problem: Yellowknife and the other six communities outlined in the 2009 report weren’t able to muster the $1-million required annually without help from the GNWT; the GNWT refused to fund a 911 service unless it could be brought to every community in the territory; and many of the communities simply didn’t have infrastructure to support it.

But with Northwestel improving its coverage to smaller communities, a 911 service is now technically possible everywhere in the NWT, said Kevin Brezinski, Director of Public Safety with MACA.

The fact the GNWT is working on a plan and the technology is now in place doesn’t mean they’ve committed to anything, but McLeod’s statement might be grist for the optimist.

“Ultimately it all boils down to cost. If politicians had endless barrels of cash, it wouldn’t be an issue, everyone recognizes the value of 911. It’s a question of can we afford it,” said Brezinski.

Several other issues need to be resolved, most notably where the ‘public safety answering point’ would go.

Yellowknife seems the obvious choice, with a new emergency dispatch system for fire and ambulance services starting in the New Year. However, our status as hub remains undecided.

“If someone says it’s worth the extra costs of putting it in Tuk or something, then that’s a discussion for the politicians,” said Brezinski.

The debate will start in force when the plan is finally tabled, but one thing seems certain: 911 is now a matter of political will rather than technical constraints.