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Comment: A genuine fire service wake-up call

What if you called 911 for an ambulance and it showed up 3,500 kilometres and three time zones away?

June 5, 2008
By Laura King


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What if you called 911 for an ambulance and it showed up 3,500 kilometres and three time zones away?

The tragic circumstances that left an 18-month-old toddler dead, his family devastated, thousands of voice-over-Internet-protocol telephone subscribers unnerved and VoIP providers scrambling is an all-points wake-up call for Canadians.

The family of Elijah Luck moved to Alberta from Mississauga, Ont., and kept their phone service with Internet phone provider Comwave. The family had changed its billing information, but not its physical address. Tragically, emergency responders were dispatched to the family’s former address, based on information on file. The family waited 30 minutes before a Calgary neighbour’s landline phone was used to call 911 again, sadly too late.

The core of the problem is simple: there are different rules governing 911 services in Canada depending on whether you have a traditional land-line based provider or a VoIP, a system whereby you get phone service through the Internet.

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But even within that seemingly clear division of technology, there are further schisms. Large VoIP providers – like Rogers – were ordered in 2005 to provide 911 services that are similar to what is available from landline companies – like Bell. Enhanced, or e911, connects a caller with the emergency communication centre in the city where the call originates.

But smaller VoIP providers are not held to this standard. These providers of so-called “nomadic” VoIP services – like Comwave and Vonage – operate 911 services via call centres, which then dispatch responders based on addresses.

The rules around all of this were set by the Canadian Radio-television Communications Commission back in 2005 and are clearly in need of an overhaul. Current rules require VoIP providers to inform customers of limitations of the 911 service annually.

For its part, the CRTC has said it plans to act to enhance service to VoIP subscribers but there are not a lot of specifics. Canadian regulations in this area are generally seen as lagging behind Federal Communications Commission-mandated rules in the United States.

The fact is that while VoIP providers do warn customers of the 911 limitations, as required by the CRTC, the 911 system is the foundation upon which emergency response stands. To be reliable it has to be bulletproof for all Canadians.

Bruce Farr, president of the EMS Chiefs of Canada, says change has to come to make VoIP 911 more reliable, and, failing that, to warn consumers that in an emergency, some types of phone calls might not reach the right people.

We will never know if a prompt response would have saved Elijah Luck. What we do know is that the system failed to help him. The CRTC and our industry must work together to change the system.

. . .


Most of  Canada’s firefighters are volunteers and we want to be sure they have a voice in our magazine. This month, we’re delighted to introduce Brad Patton, the fire chief in Centre Wellington, Ont., one of the largest volunteer departments in Ontario. Chief Patton has lots to say and we’re happy to give him the space in which to do so. Read his inaugural Volunteer Vision column.


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