Upgrading Calgary's emergency telephone service to help better serve the hearing impaired

911-Upgrade-3 ThumbRight now for people in the deaf and hard of hearing communities, picking up the phone and calling 911 isn't easy.

But come January, an upgrade to the 911-telephone service will allow these people to text emergency services.

The system will eventually be able to receive – not only texts – but pictures and video as well says Steve Dongworth, commander of public safety communications.

 The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission has been requesting improvements to the existing technology so that different types of data is able to be received at the public safety answering points.

"It's really a reflection on what's going on in society and how people are communicating," Dongworth says.

Jaclyn Whitelock, the secretary for the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association Calgary, is hard of hearing and unable to make phone calls. She says there aren't many options currently available in a true emergency situation.

One option is a teletypewriter. With a TTY the calls are typed instead of spoken but must go through the telecommunication relay service. Whitelock says that this would significantly increase response time.911-Upgrade-2In January 2014 people in the deaf and hard of hearing communities will be able to text 911 as part of the telephone system upgrade.

Photo by Evan Manconi

"Texting to 911 would allow deaf and hard of hearing individuals to make emergency calls, without the concern of not being able to hear, understand, and otherwise communicate with the operator."

Rytch Newmiller, manager of equipment services at the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Society, is a cochlear implant user, which is an electronic device that is surgically implanted that provides a sense of sound to a person who is deaf or severely hard of hearing. He was involved in the trial of the new service where his phone number was linked to his license plate number.

On Dec. 31, 2012 he was in a car accident. He says that when the officer arrived and took down his license plate, his phone number appeared – indicating that he was deaf.

"He was kind enough to text me everything, and gave me very clear instructions, I got out safely. I was quite impressed."

– Rytch Newmiller
He says the officer immediately began texting him, instructing him not to move. He says his car was leaning precariously off of Whitemud Drive in southern Edmonton. Through texting, the officer was able to communicate with Newmiller so that once the car was secure he could climb out the back window.

"He was kind enough to text me everything, and gave me very clear instructions, I got out safely. I was quite impressed."

In October there will be a town meeting that will allow people in the deaf and hard of hearing communities to register their numbers with the police. By registering, when an emergency does occur, they will be able to text 911 and the police will have all of their information right away.

The difficulties with the system upgrade come in implementation and cost. According to the City of Calgary's Capital Projects, the upgrade is ongoing and will cost $2.9 million.

Dongworth says that there are clear benefits for the system upgrade. Eventually people from the general public will be able to text 911. He says that there are certain situations – such as when there is an active shooter – where contacting the police silently is invaluable.

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