NWT-wide 9-1-1 service launches on Monday, November 4, though communities still have questions about how the service will work.
The territory has never had the same 9-1-1 service most other Canadian residents take for granted, relying instead on local numbers for police, fire, and ambulance in each community.
Work to introduce the service began in 2017. A senior manager overseeing 9-1-1's introduction delivered a final presentation to Yellowknife city councillors on Monday, a week before its go-live date.
Eleanor Young, deputy minister of municipal and community affairs, confirmed the service will roll out in all 33 of the NWT's communities at once.
One dispatcher will staff the line at all times, though other members of staff can step in to help if call volumes increase.
That staffing level drew criticism on Monday, with one councillor saying he felt the service was "completely understaffed." Young said the territory had based staffing levels on assessments of similar services in other jurisdictions, and would hire more staff if that proved necessary.
How 9-1-1 connects with local emergency services will vary depending on each community and its capacities. In Yellowknife, city councillors questioned 9-1-1's impact on existing services and whether dispatch times would be affected.
The service implemented on November 4 will be so-called "basic 9-1-1," said Young, eventually moving to so-called "next-generation 9-1-1," which includes advanced caller ID and the ability to text. The dispatcher working the line will provide life support and pre-arrival information, offer a triage service, and recommend responses.
Importantly, the actual fire, ambulance, and police services in each community will not change when 9-1-1 goes live.
"The fire department that exists in Tsiigehtchic is the fire department that will respond after 9-1-1," Young told Yellowknife city councillors, providing an example. "If there's not an ambulance in Tsiigehtchic today, there won't be an ambulance just because 9-1-1 comes in."
Staff training has been taking place since September 5, Young said – including how to handle the stress associated with calls about critical incidents.
All staff are fully bilingual in French and English, Young said, and the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs (Maca) is working to provide access to translation in the territory's nine other official languages.
"We are doing the best we can to find a solution for the time being," said Young, suggesting dispatchers would, for now, rely on translators available through an NWT government-approved list.
A "self-rescue guideline" will be used for communities where no ambulance exists, or where medical staff cannot leave the health centre. In effect, this will involve helping people find a way to get to medical treatment instead of waiting for it to come to them. Dispatchers will be trained to support and help stabilize people who are out on the land and must travel to receive medical care.
Yellowknife, unlike other communities, already has its own emergency dispatch. Councillors asked Young how 9-1-1 will integrate with the existing system, expressing concern that 9-1-1 may add an extra step that delays response times.
In response, Young said call transfer between 9-1-1 and the city's emergency services would take between 13 and 35 seconds. During this time, the caller would remain on the line.
Ahead of the meeting, Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty had said this was a key concern – ensuring "that fire trucks and ambulances are able to respond to calls as quickly as we currently are."
Several times on Monday, councillors probed the way in which 9-1-1 will handle multiple, simultaneous calls, or mass-casualty events, with just one staff member dedicated to fielding calls at any one time.
The NWT government's plan envisages several people able to support the dispatcher and assist with calls during the day, and two people in the room after hours. The dispatcher would work alongside the territory's existing medical response dispatch – those staff will be trained to handle 9-1-1 calls and will serve as a backup.
Councillor Niels Konge remained unconvinced as he questioned Young on Monday. "I think that you guys are, as far as I see, are completely understaffed," he said. "Do you expect to have to hire more people or are you hoping this will be enough?"
Young, in response, said Maca had done its homework by looking at jurisdictions like Newfoundland, which introduced province-wide 9-1-1 in 2015.
"We've tried as much as possible to build this model on our understanding of call volumes across the system, territory-wide," said Young. "If our data changes or call volumes change then we will adjust our staffing as required."
The Norman Wells fire hall is shown in a supplied photo.
At the moment, the NWT estimates around 78 calls per day for the service, which will operate around the clock. Statistics will be reviewed daily and weekly, and a committee – yet to be established – will review how timely responses to calls are.
Young said a higher number of calls is expected when the service goes live, including both prank calls and people "testing out" the service. When 9-1-1 went live in Newfoundland and Labrador, officials had to go public asking residents to stop making test calls just to prove it worked.
The go-live-date will not change, Young said, when asked by Councillor Shauna Morgan whether Maca would consider delaying it. "We've not been made aware of anything that we believe is putting life and safety at risk to prevent implementation," said Young.
'Awareness campaign' to roll out
A week from its launch, there has been little to no publicity of 9-1-1's imminent introduction.
Young said the NWT government had decided to begin advertising the service only once it was operational. That campaign will include mailouts across the territory, information on the territorial government's website, and information delivered to communities.
Road signs informing drivers will be installed along NWT highways in the spring.
Young said the department has given presentations to community councils and talked with government service officers who can, in turn, connect with Elders. She hoped the territory would "avoid some of the challenges we've heard of, in the past, with connecting to dispatch services and understanding what they are and how to work with them."
Mayor of Norman Wells Frank Pope said his community had yet to meet with Maca, but he expected that meeting to happen in the near future.
Reached by Cabin Radio on Monday, Pope had questions about how 9-1-1 would direct calls made in his Sahtu community.
"We're still a little confused as to how it's going to play out," he said.