911 system still has trouble finding cellphone callers

GATINEAU, Que. – Canada’s patchwork system of 911 services needs to fix the problems it currently has — such as accurately locating cellphone callers — before new ways such as text messaging or social media can be used to call for help in an emergency, a CRTC report says.

It’s also not clear how many 911 calls are made in Canada each year which the report called “unacceptable.”

The location of mobile phone callers isn’t always provided to 911 service and when it is provided, it can be an approximation to the closest cellphone tower, the report said Thursday.

“Simply put, if they do not know where you are, they do not know where to send help,” the report said.

“Inaccurate information arising from cell towers is also a significant problem in determining where callers are.”

New technologies to contact 911 will not address the issue that there is no one, single authority responsible for 911, said report author Timothy Denton, whose term as a CRTC commissioner ended this year.

However, the CRTC is asking Canadians about the use of text and picture messaging and social media to contact emergency services. The federal regulator wants to hear from consumers, technology experts and emergency responders about how the technologies they use in their daily lives could be incorporated into 911 service.

“It will not be done at the flick of a switch or at the same time across all jurisdictions,” the report cautioned.

The report said there is a “large and widening gap” between what 911 services can do and what people expect they can do.

The negative side of Canadians using new technologies to communicate with 911 will be the associated costs, the report said.

There is also a worry that new technology will make things more complicated and expensive and could involve more training and potentially new legal liabilities for those who answer 911 calls.

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