Several problems in Canada's patchwork system of 911 services need to be fixed — such as accurately locating cellphone callers — before new methods like text messages or social media can be used in an emergency, according to a report Thursday.
The report by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) also noted that it was "unacceptable" that the number of 911 calls made in Canada each year are not tracked.
Authored by former CRTC commissioner Timothy Denton, the report noted a "large and widening gap" between what 911 services can do and what people expect they can do.
For example, some Canadians mistakenly believe that emergency responders can monitor social media sites or are always provided a precise location of a mobile phone call. In many instances, when a location is provided, it can be an approximation to the closest cellphone tower.
"Simply put, if they do not know where you are, they do not know where to send help," said the report. "Inaccurate information arising from cell towers is also a significant problem in determining where callers are."
Denton wrote that new technologies to contact 911 will not address these issues, because there is no single authority responsible for these emergency services or different levels of funding for such services.
Despite these roadblocks, the federal regulator wants to hear from consumers about how they think text messages, picture messages, and social media can be incorporated into the 911 service.
The report cautioned that these new technologies have the potential of making the services more complicated, and could involve more training and create new legal liabilities for those who answer 911 calls.
"For example, if Canadians can submit videos, pictures or other digital assets in conjunction with 911 calls, the resources required to manage 911 calls will increase significantly. While in some cases videos or pictures may provide valuable information, too much information could be a danger," the report said, adding that those who handle 911 calls may not have enough time to look at all of the information.
A group representing police, fire and paramedics said the use of new technologies will increase costs.
The use of new technologies could increase costs up to 30 per cent in 911 budgets, said Lance Valcour, executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group.
But Valcour said the use of new technologies to reach 911 can't be delayed until every municipality and province is ready.
The CRTC has already asked the country's wireless carriers to make changes to their networks and systems to support 911 emergency text messages from hearing and speech-impaired persons. That service is going to start to roll out in January.