New system in Toronto will mean you can text 911, eventually send photos, video

In the next year or so in Toronto, you’ll be able to text 911 and first responders will be able to better pinpoint where you are if you do.

The new system is part of a modernization effort underway by Toronto police, fire and paramedic services to meet the standards of a next-generation 911 system.

“It’s the first major advancement in 911 technology more or less since they started the three-digit number,” said Toronto Police Supt. Hugh Ferguson.

“The reality is that the system was designed decades ago when the phone was on the wall or a desk.”

The changes aren’t just coming to Toronto.

All 911 service providers across the country have been mandated by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) to change from an analog, landline-based system, to a fully digital one that operates on an IP network by June 2023.

In Toronto, like most places, the features of the new system won’t roll out all at once. One of the first upgrades will be the ability to text 911 and to ping cell phones to locate a caller more accurately.

Both are features Ferguson says will make a “huge” difference, because police will be able to identify, and get to, scenes more quickly when a caller can’t talk to them.

“You know if there’s a suspect in the house and they can’t speak, they can text,” Ferguson told CBC Toronto. “They can now communicate with us without risk of giving away their location.”

And even if a caller is able to talk, Chief Frank Pappone of Toronto Fire’s technology division says being able to pinpoint a caller’s location will help in open spaces.

“People don’t realize that we don’t always know exactly where you are,” said Pappone. “Calls on the [Scarborough] bluffs for example, where people get adventurous and get stuck … it’s hard to find exactly where they are.”

Will still be better to call 911 if you can

Although all three emergency services agree that there are situations when texting 911 will be helpful, they also want the public to continue calling the emergency number when possible.

“[Calling] is faster, it is more reliable and also capable of giving you context,” said Irina Pantofaru, commander of communications engineering for Toronto Paramedics.

At the moment, people who are deaf or hard of hearing are the only ones with the ability to text 911 in Toronto.

A few years down the line, Toronto’s new system will also allow people to text photos and videos to 911. The city’s emergency services say they still have many things to sort out with that feature, including how to filter the content.

The photo and video feature is expected to be most useful for police, who might be looking for a suspect.

“Everybody is slightly different in the way they describe a colour, or style of a jacket that someone’s wearing,” said Ferguson. “If you could have a picture of the person as you’re driving to a call, wow, that’s miles ahead of where we are now.”

Even though that feature is years away, texting 911 is already in place in the U.S.

Some U.S. states can already text 911

People in states like Washington and Oregon can text 911. Pappone credits public information campaigns from his American counterparts for rolling out the service smoothly there.

“The fear, much like we have here, was that processing a text call takes many times longer than processing a voice call,” said Pappone. “They were worried that they would get an influx of text messaging and it would slow them down. Well, that swell of texts never occurred.”

Toronto’s emergency services aren’t quite there yet.

Right now, police and paramedics are in the process of choosing a vendor to build their new systems. Toronto Fire Services hasn’t started to look for a vendor yet, because it only needs some upgrades, not a whole new system, to meet the CRTC mandate.

Police, fire and paramedics all operate separate 911 systems and software, partly because, Pappone says, if one agency’s system fails, the whole 911 system doesn’t fail.

At this point, the services still have a lot of questions about how new features like texting 911 will roll out, whether it will happen jurisdiction-by-jurisdiction, or all at once across the province.

“I think it’s going to be crucial to our success rate, and no decision has been made on that stuff yet,” said Pappone.


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