The Northwest Territories’ new 9-1-1 dispatchers took an estimated 9,000 calls in the service’s opening four months. Only a third were about real emergencies.
The figures were provided by the minister responsible for 9-1-1, Paulie Chinna, in the legislature on Thursday. Before November 4, 2019, the NWT did not have 9-1-1 – residents instead had to call local numbers depending on location.
Chinna, the minister for municipal and community affairs, said 29 percent of the 9,000 calls were seeking police assistance; four percent were related to health; and one percent were calls about fires.
“The remaining 66 percent of the calls are classified as non-emergency, which can include prank calls, test calls, and other inquiries of a non-emergency nature,” Chinna said in response to a question from Steve Norn, the Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA.
It’s not clear how many of that last column were prank or test calls, and how many were well-intentioned calls about issues that did not represent what the department considers a genuine emergency.
The NWT has repeatedly urged residents not to “test” the new 9-1-1 system by calling it for no other reason than to hear it working.
Between November 4 and March 9, there were just seven calls placed in languages other than English, Chinna said.
Five of the calls were in French and handled by bilingual dispatchers. The remaining two were in Cantonese, a variety of Chinese. Those calls were answered with the help of CanTalk, a translation service.
“There have been no official-language calls to date,” said Chinna, referring to the ability of residents to call 9-1-1 in any of the territory’s nine official languages other than English and French.
One concern raised by municipal leaders in recent months, particularly in Yellowknife, is the fear of a delay when residents call 9-1-1. Some local politicians worry emergencies now have two layers of dispatch to pass through instead of one – for example, a dispatcher at 9-1-1 takes a call and then relays the emergency to the municipal dispatch service.
The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has repeatedly stated it believes any such delay is so small as to have no detrimental impact on responses to calls.
No statistics regarding response times were provided on Thursday.
Eleanor Young, the deputy minister of municipal and community affairs, said there had been “growing pains in how calls are received and communicated to dispatch centres in communities.”
Young continued: “In some cases, communities have hired some additional support. In other cases, we’re working with the community to try to go through and iron out exactly what the issues are and resolve those.
“I am working quite closely, for example, with the City of Yellowknife on some issues they have identified – trying to work through what’s causing the issue and then what the resolution to that issue is.”
The precise nature of those issues was not given.
Chinna, the minister, said: “We are actually working together to improve and have one established service for the City of Yellowknife.”
A report on 9-1-1’s performance is to be compiled within 90 days of the end of the current fiscal year, on March 31.
That report will assess how many calls are being received, the staff time required (the service is currently designed to run with a staff of seven), and any issues that recur.
Staffing, said Chinna, is an area where her department is paying close attention. The minister implied there have been challenges recruiting people with the right skills for the job of 9-1-1 dispatcher.
“Since the service has been available … we have had, I don’t want to say staffing issues, but it’s a very unique education that you need to fill these positions,” she said.
“There are a limited number of people who come forward with this expertise.”