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N.W.T. 911 officials warn Yellowknife’s overlapping emergency dispatch is a risk to patients

In a fire or medical emergency, people in Yellowknife can call 911, which is run by the territory, or 867-873-2222, which is operated by the city. (Walter Strong/CBC - image credit)
Officials with Northwest Territories 911 are warning that overlapping emergency dispatch systems in Yellowknife could pose a safety risk to people in urgent need of care. 

Voicing these concerns, Dr. Rahul Khosla, the territory’s 911 medical director with Advanced Medical Solutions wrote to the Municipal and Community Affairs Department’s (MACA) deputy minister, Laura Gareau on March 24.

“We understand that issues are continuing to occur with the call relay processes between N.W.T. 911 and the [Yellowknife Public Safety Communications Centre] that have the potential to delay response times and the delivery of pre-arrival care instructions,” Khosla wrote.

He said call relay issues could “adversely affect patient outcomes,” and urged the government to resolve the matter before someone gets hurt.

Khosla declined to comment on the letter. A spokesperson for Advanced Medical Solutions said Khosla would not do an interview because his organization isn’t directly involved in the emergency call relay process.

911 vs 2222

There are two numbers people in Yellowknife can call in the event of a fire or medical emergency: 911, which is run by Municipal and Community Affairs (MACA), and 867-873-2222, which is operated by the city.

But the two emergency dispatch services have disagreed over how to share information and responsibilities in the territory’s most populous city.

In an internal report issued on March 17, and obtained by CBC News, N.W.T. 911 made its case for being the primary point of contact for callers in distress.

According to the N.W.T. 911 report on “risk assessment considerations” related to the transfer of callers to the Yellowknife dispatch centre, city dispatchers don’t offer the kind of over-the-phone medical instruction that 911 can provide.

For example, N.W.T. 911 dispatchers have helped callers deliverbabies.

N.W.T. 911 also has access to language interpreters and call-tracing technology.

But last October, the city said there were issues with the way 911 transmits information to Yellowknife fire and ambulance dispatchers.

City officials at the time said they prefer for their dispatchers to speak with callers directly, rather than get information second-hand, through 911.

The city has also said that despite this preference, their dispatchers are supposed to forward “life-critical” medical calls to 911, “as per protocols confirmed between N.W.T. 911 and the City.”

Callers left with no CPR support

But according to the March 17 report from N.W.T. 911, this call-forwarding process has failed on multiple occasions.

The report says that four times in the last year, someone has called the city’s 2222 number needing CPR, and that the city tried — and failed — to transfer the call to 911, “leaving the patient/caller with no CPR support.”

It’s unclear what happened to those patients.

Jay Legere/CBC
The city said its director of public safety wasn’t available for an interview on Tuesday, and Mayor Rebecca Alty said she couldn’t do an interview, either. 

A city spokesperson said they were working to respond to CBC’s questions about emergency dispatch, and provided an emailed statement in the interim.

They said the city and MACA “continue to work closely to improve emergency dispatch services in the Yellowknife area,” and that the two bodies collaborate to protect the health and safety of residents when responding to emergencies.

“Yellowknifers will continue to receive expert responses in an emergency when they call either 911 or 873-2222,” they said.

A cabinet spokesperson said MACA Minister Shane Thompson was not available for an interview on Tuesday.

In an emailed statement, a MACA spokesperson said the department and the city are in talks to improve emergency dispatch services.

They said that until that work is finished, “it is not appropriate for MACA to discuss internal planning and decision making, publicly.”

These discussions have been underway, it seems, for at least six months. CBC reported in October of last year that MACA and the city were working to clarify their respective roles and responsibilities for emergency dispatch in Yellowknife.

The MACA spokesperson also said Tuesday that the N.W.T. and the city want to “jointly assure” Yellowknife residents that in an emergency, they can call either 911 or the number ending in 2222.

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