What you can do to make 911 work

Russell Wangersky rwanger@thetelegram.com
Published on August 31, 2014

In mid-August, emergency dispatchers in Corner Brook made the news for not once, but twice, sending emergency crews to the wrong building.

In one case, the fire department was sent to Westview Avenue, when they were supposed to have been responding to a fire call on West Avenue.

In the other, an ambulance crew was dispatched to Commerce Court, when the ambulance was actually needed at the Commerce Building.

Simple mistakes, but they cost critical response time: a fire grows quickly (doubling in size, by popular measure, every minute or so), and the chances of successfully reviving a patient decline as time ebbs away.

Mistakes nonetheless — but mistakes happen. Who hasn’t gotten in their car and gone to the wrong place?

This week, the province updated its plans for a provincial 911 service: the existing City of St. John’s 911 service will take over responsibility for the Avalon Peninsula.

Corner Brook will dispatch emergency services across the rest of the island and in Labrador.

It’s a necessary step: the collection of different numbers you need to report an emergency in the absence of a 911 service are just plain ridiculous, and it’s simply impossible for someone travelling through the province on the highway system to know the contact numbers for each of the dispatch areas they are in.

But there’s another critical piece of the puzzle that has to be put in place in this province, and the provincial government has, with 911 moving ahead, the perfect chance to implement a much-needed change.

There probably isn’t a volunteer firefighter in this province who has not been called to something like “the green house three down from the store” or “the yellow one next to Pat Murphy senior’s.” (I was once sent on a call that was the equivalent of “the house that used to be blue next to the place where Tony Smith used to live.”)

That kind of orientation can work well enough with first responders in a small community; it has clear pitfalls when it’s going through the filter of a 911 operator on the other side of the province.

Don’t get me wrong, I think provincewide 911 is long overdue. The first 911 service in a Canadian city was in Winnipeg in 1959 — the idea caught on fast, now covering 98 per cent of the U.S. and Canada. The fact that we don’t have province-wide 911 is almost embarrassing.

The other thing that’s clearly overdue is that homeowners should be required to have sequential municipal street numbers, and they should be required to display those numbers in a way that makes them easily visible from the street. The numbers should have a minimum size, and homeowners should be told how best to display them (particularly on houses that are sheltered by trees or are some distance from the road).

And there are a couple of other things that people should probably be thinking about: eventually, we’re all likely to have to call 911.

It wouldn’t hurt to have a good idea what it is you’re going to say — what it is you are going to have to say first, for example.

Fire departments already suggest that you test your smoke detectors regularly and change the batteries twice a year — at the same time you put your clocks forward or back for daylight savings time.

It wouldn’t hurt to take the same time twice a year to practice what you would say to let emergency responders know exactly how to find you or your house.

And by practice, I mean actually say it out loud. There probably isn’t a working 911 operator who has not had a call that was almost completely unintelligible — the combination of stress, surprise and often panic can drive clear thought from people’s heads.

The province is slowly working its way to enhanced 911, the kind of service that automatically knows where you are calling from when you call in. (We’re way behind there, too: 96 per cent of locations in Canada and the U.S. already have enhanced 911 service.)

In the meantime, we should be doing every single thing we can to ensure that we give police, firefighters and paramedics every scrap of information they need to get to the right place as quickly as possible.

Truth is, they don’t like being late either.

Russell Wangersky is news editor of the St. John’s Telegram. He can be reached by email at rwanger@thetelegram.com.