A provincial government grant aimed at fixing the aging 911 system will save the City of Nelson $3.5 million.
The money is part of a larger package of $150 million to upgrade both technology and staffing in the 911 service province-wide.
Mayor Janice Morrison says the province is taking responsibility for something that never should have appeared in the city’s budget in the first place.
“It is always good news when the government sees that this kind of program should not be downloaded to municipal governments,” Morrison said.
The city thought it was going to have to cover the upgrade costs, because its 911 system, along with one other B.C. city, Prince Rupert, is independent of the province-wide system run by E-Comm.
The upgrade is intended to improve service by allowing callers to report emergencies by text message and video messaging. It will be GPS-enabled to share the location of an emergency, and provide other efficiencies to the system including making it easier to make calls related to mental health.
The planned improvements are a response to a federal government requirement that all 911 services in Canada to upgrade to Next Generation 911 by 2025, so that all areas of the country receive a consistent and up-to-date level of service.
The reason Nelson has a separate system is lost in history and no one at city hall knows its origins, Morrison says.
Asked about the $3.5-million price tag for upgrading the 911 system in Nelson, Morrison agreed that it seems high, but it was arrived at after considerable research. One factor is that there are not many companies in the country who know how to do the necessary upgrade, she said.
City manager Kevin Cormack said giving up Nelson’s independent 911 service and signing on with E-Comm and the provincial system would likely be just as expensive.
“With the funding from the province we will be able to move to the Next Generation 911 and this will allow us to maintain the operational efficiencies that we have in our system,” he said in an email.
The advantage of Nelson having its own system, Morrison said, is that the city has control over staffing and has not suffered the widely publicized 911 staff shortages across the provinces that often result in dangerous wait times for ambulances or police.
Another advantage for Nelson, she said, is that its 911 operators, employed by the Nelson Police Department, know the landmarks in the city and can more easily direct emergency services to the correct location.
The City of Nelson is one of many B.C. municipalities that have repeatedly asked the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) to lobby the province for 911 upgrades. They want a 911 call answer levy on cellular devices, consistent service standards, and integration of mental health call options.
For this year’s conference in September, UBCM has classified this as a special resolution that does not have to be debated among delegates, but will be submitted to the province as a formal request.
UBCM president Jen Ford said the provincial funding will still not solve all 911 problems.
“While this money is greatly appreciated,“she said in an email, “it does not directly address long-term issues, such as the increasing frequency and severity of disasters, 911 service disruptions and the growing annual call volume.”