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NWT denies claims calls to 911 in French could be delayed

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The territorial government says a francophone group complaining about the proposed implementation of 911 in the NWT has its facts wrong.

Starting later this year, residents of the territory will for the first time be able to call 911 for emergency services, rather than relying on a series of local numbers.

Earlier this week, the Fédération Franco-Ténoise (FFT) claimed the territory was not making French fluency a requirement for its new 911 dispatchers.

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In a news release, the FFT also alleged the territory's system could see calls in French take up to 80 seconds to be processed, as opposed to a target of 30 seconds for calls in English.

However, on Wednesday, the department responsible for introducing 911 said none of the claims made by the FFT were true.

"It's not the case," said Ashley Geraghty, manager of the 911 program for the territory's Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA).

"Our positions are what we in the Government of the Northwest Territories call 'French required,' meaning [the dispatchers] will have to speak French."

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In theory, callers to 911 in the NWT could use any of 144 different languages, said Geraghty.

If the dispatcher can't speak the language, they can refer the caller to an interpreter. In that instance, the target is for the call to be processed (in other words, action should be taken as a result of the call) within 80 seconds, rather than 30 if the dispatcher is able to handle the call themselves.

As all dispatchers must speak both English and French, said Geraghty, the 30-second target would apply to each language.

An interpreter is more likely to be used if, for example, an Indigenous language were being spoken or a tourist speaking an Asian language were to call for help.

'Different information'

The FFT is a non-profit whose mission, the federation says, is to "promote, encourage, and defend the cultural, political, social, and community life of French-Canadians in the NWT."

​​In the FFT's news release, its chair – Jean-François Pître – had claimed the territory was breaching the Official Languages Act, adding: "There should be no wait time, especially in emergencies. We ask that all 911 dispatchers be able to answer calls in French."

Geraghty reaffirmed there would be no additional francophone wait time and all dispatchers would speak French. He could not explain how the FFT may have come to think otherwise.

"Well, I'm uncertain. I personally didn't speak to the FFT myself," said Geraghty. "I'm uncertain if they've made an inference from a CBC article or other things that they've heard."

On being provided with Geraghty's response, FFT executive director Linda Bussey said by email: "It's very interesting that MACA is providing you with different information than they provided us.

"If you read the CBC and Radio-Canada ICI articles, it clearly indicates that all calls received not in English will have an 80-second wait time."

Bussey, who is currently out of town, said she would need to meet with staff to better understand how the confusion had come about.

Initially planned for a June rollout, the long-awaited 911 service is likely to be slightly delayed as the territory works with individual communities to finalize response plans.

No firm date for its launch is currently available. Geraghty said his office hopes to provide one within the next month.

At launch, the service will have a team of five dispatchers with one on duty at all times.

In situations where multiple calls come in at once, members of the territory's med-response team – which coordinates medevacs – will step in to assist.

A public awareness campaign explaining how 911 will work in the NWT is due to be launched by the territorial government in the coming months.