Montreal latest North American city being urged to explore 911 texting service

Websites offering 911 emergency text services are seen on a smartphone Wednesday, September 14, 2016 in Montreal. A local politician wants Montreal city council to become the next municipality to consider allowing residents to use text messages to communicate with 911 emergency operators.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

MONTREAL - A local politician wants Montreal city council to become the next municipality to consider allowing residents to use text messages to communicate with 911 emergency operators.

Francois Limoges, an opposition city councillor with Projet Montreal, says he intends to introduce a motion Monday night asking Montreal police to study the feasibility of such a service.

Calls for widely available texting services are on the rise in some North Amercian cities since the mass shooting at an Orlando nightclub in June, when it was reported that some of the victims texted family members to ask them to call 911 out of fear of drawing the shooter's attention.

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission says about 670 dispatch centres can currently accept 911 texts.

In Canada, 911 texting is available for people with speech or hearing impairments in most communities, with others still in the process of upgrading their networks to support the service.

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), which regulates telecommunications in Canada, is reviewing the potential for "next generation" 911 services and is expected to hold public hearings in January.

Limoges is hoping Montreal's administration will follow Toronto, the first Canadian city to study expanding the service to all citizens earlier this year.

Limoges says he believes texting could serve as a valuable police tool and save lives by allowing victims to contact emergency services without drawing the attention of an aggressor in active-shooter or domestic violence scenarios.

"If we have the tools to allow police to better do their jobs and intervene faster and better when someone's life is in danger, there is no reason not to act," Limoges says.

Several police and emergency operators contacted by The Canadian Press say talking directly with an operator remains their preference.

Jody Robertson, a spokesperson for Vancouver's 911 dispatcher, says texting may increase response time due to a delay in messages and replies.

Robertson says phone calls allow dispatchers to track call locations and provide valuable secondary information through background noise and the tone of a caller's voice.

"Overall, there is concern regarding the amount of time lost in typing, sending, receiving and interpreting texts and loss of personal contact with callers and a lack of location information," she says in an email.

Christopher Schneider, a sociology professor at Manitoba's Brandon University who has studied police and technology, says texting also raises questions of what to do with the increased amount of information coming in — which could eventually include video and photos.

"If there's a relatively minor fender bender, and now (energency services) are being inundated with text and video in a circumstance where they might not require that data, what then?" he says. "Do they discard it? Do they keep it? We need to determine what the best practices should be."

CRTC spokeswoman Patricia Valladao says a decision on expanding service will come later in 2017.

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