A Yellowknife MLA says the Northwest Territories’ new 911 emergency service is underfunded, a situation she fears will lead to the burnout of the operators fielding the sometimes life-and-death calls.
The territorial government introduced 911 service to all communities late last year. The cost of the service is supposed to be covered by a $1.70 charge on people’s monthly phone bills, money the phone companies remit to the territorial government.
Speaking in the legislature on Friday, Katrina Nokleby said there are only five operators, working 12-hour shifts sometimes with no relief.
“At times, 911 has been so short-staffed that the dispatcher on duty doesn’t get meal or break times and has to run to the bathroom hoping a call does not come in,” said the MLA for Great Slave.
“The last government, desperate to get costs below the $1.70-per-month subscriber fee, cut everything possible from the budget, even relief staff.”
Nokleby said the last territorial cabinet turned down a request for funding for two additional operators. She said the government’s thriftiness about 911 emergency service costs is in stark contrast to its spending for a new 811 service it set up for calls related to COVID-19.
Nokleby said in addition to taking calls, 911 operators have other responsibilities, including dispatching Inuvik ambulances and Norman Wells fire service. She said compared to the five 911 operators, the 811 COVID-19 line, set up to answer questions and also field reports about people violating COVID-19 rules, has nine operators, three nurses, four relief positions and one manager position.
Relief staff being added, minister says
Responding to questions from Nokleby in the legislature, the minister of municipal and community affairs said funding for the two services comes from different budgets. The emergency call service is overseen by Minister Paulie Chinna, while 811 service is the responsibility of Premier Caroline Cochrane.
“The department is adding additional relief staff to the  dispatch centre to support existing staff,” said Chinna.
Minister of Municipal and Community Affairs Paulie Chinna said she will be releasing the actual costs incurred for 911 service in its first 6 months during the current sitting of the legislature. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)
Chinna said she will be releasing the actual costs incurred for 911 service in its first six months during the current sitting of the legislature. Chinna said the release of the figures has been delayed as a result of the pandemic.
Chinna said the law the last assembly passed to create 911 service dictates that the fee of $1.70 per month will not increase for at least the first three years of the service. She said the government does not intend to deviate from that.
A study the government commissioned five years ago concluded a fee of $1.15 per month should be enough to cover the full cost of the service.