Yellowknife councillors have cut funding for new emergency dispatch software from the city’s annual budget for the second year in a row.
Councillors began reviewing the 2022 municipal budget on Monday. They are expected to pare down what is currently a projected 13.44-percent tax hike to a more manageable figure.
On their first night of deliberations, council cut $53,000 in spending proposed for new dispatch software. Some councillors argued there first needs to be better collaboration with the NWT government, which oversees the territory’s 9-1-1 service.
“It’s a little bit premature and I think we can wait and try to get some other ducks in a row before we proceed or not proceed with this,” said Councillor Niels Konge, who introduced a motion to remove the software from the budget.
For the past two years, Yellowknife residents in need of fire or ambulance services can either call 9-1-1 or 867-873-2222 – the city’s 10-digit emergency number. The services sometimes overlap and, as the CBC reported in October, there have been disputes between the city and territorial government over the way calls are processed.
In October, the territorial and municipal governments issued a joint statement assuring residents they could call either number in an emergency, adding the governments are “working together to continue to improve public safety.”
Councillor Cynthia Mufandaedza on Monday said she’d like to see city staff explore sharing dispatch software with the territorial government. Julian Morse said he was concerned about the “lack of continuity” between the city’s dispatch system and the territorial 9-1-1 system.
“Currently we have a peculiar hybrid system that isn’t working particularly well and I think that we absolutely need to prioritize getting this figured out,” he said. “It’s just difficult for me to approve a budget item that would take us in the other direction.”
Shauna Morgan was the only councillor to vote against removing new dispatch software from the budget. She argued a “proper dispatch system” needs tools to keep dispatchers in contact with both first responders and callers. She said that means getting necessary information and updates to first responders in real time, while supporting callers as they are en-route, including providing first aid instructions.
“I know there’s fear that this duplicates the 9-1-1 function of the 9-1-1 system but the reality is that the 9-1-1 system is not providing a full dispatch service to Yellowknife,” said Morgan.
“I think we would be wise to have a more complete dispatch service.”
The territorial government introduced long-awaited 9-1-1 service in November 2019, but there have been bumps along the way.
In Yellowknife, in particular, municipal politicians have raised concerns about potential delays as emergencies pass through two layers of dispatch: 9-1-1 and the municipal service. The Department of Municipal and Community Affairs has argued there should be no delay when the system works as designed, and delays reported to date are too small to negatively impact response to calls.
The department is currently reviewing the 9-1-1- service following its second anniversary.
Councillors also discussed the need to hire four new firefighters in July.
Jennifer Hunt-Poitras, the city’s director of public safety, said more firefighters are needed to maintain minimum staffing at the fire hall. Right now, she said, the department does not have that capacity 33 percent of the time.
“Time is of the essence when it comes to fires, in particular. Not having adequate staff available to attend to a fire can make the difference between life and death,” Hunt-Poitras said.
“They can make the difference between whether we’re able to save a property or not.
“Our staff are telling us that they’re burning out. We’re having a difficult time even getting people to come in on overtime shifts because they’re so burned out.”
Councillor Morse pointed out the majority of calls to the fire hall are for medical emergencies and questioned whether it would be better to separate fire and ambulance services.
“I’m just wondering if throwing firefighters at the ambulance problem is the best way to deal with it,” he said. “It just seems to me like there’s a specialist service here that could be thought about.”
Hunt-Poitras said there are benefits to offering a dual service, adding it can be challenging to keep trained people in Yellowknife with the high turnover of firefighters and paramedics. She did, though, acknowledge that splitting the services has been considered.
Councillors will continue budget deliberations on Tuesday at 5:30pm. They are expected to approve the final budget on December 13.