For the hearing impaired, calling 911 can add frustration and peril to an already urgent situation, often ending with panicked runs to neighbours or bystanders for help.
This week, members of Vancouver's hearing impaired community became the first Canadians who could communicate with 911 operators via text message. The service won't be available to the wider public, because hearing-impaired users must first register their phones with authorities. And only a few areas will have the service for now.
Known as T911, the change was required by federal regulators and is a significant development for a community long dependent on bulky teletypewriters.
"This is something we've waited many years for. This gives me my independence to contact emergency services; now I'm just as free as anyone else," Janice Lyons, a service leader at the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing said through a sign-language interpreter.
The service, launched on Tuesday, is available in Metro Vancouver and some communities along the Sunshine Coast and Squamish Lillooet region. Under the system, registered phones dialling 911 can be connected with operators and a text-message session will be initiated. The operators will still be able to hear sounds from the user's phone and track its location.
"It's an incremental improvement to what we already have," said Chris Langdon, a vice-president at Telus Corp. "We are going to roll out sequentially as operators are ready across the country."
Ms. Lyons was invited to test the new system before it was launched. She advised local 911 provider E-Comm to simplify the language in its texts, asking that words like "concise" be replaced by "short." Many in the hearing impaired community have a grasp of English only as a second language.
"Once you start adding complex English structure and vocabulary it becomes confusing, especially when people are in a panic," she said.
The new system required a number of technical tweaks to the local mobile phone network. The quick rollout in the Lower Mainland was aided by the local 911 provider, considered one of the most advanced in the country. Proud of being first to introduce the service, E-Comm's Doug Watson said that many more operators across the country "were hot on their heels."
Calgary's 911 service will follow on Monday. While federal regulators mandate that the required technology be installed by Jan. 24, no other definitive plans have been made elsewhere in Canada to introduce the service. The piecemeal rollout has been questioned by some critics.
"While this is a good day, it also points out the need for national-level co-ordination," said Lance Valcour, the outgoing executive director of the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group. "Just because it works on one network, it doesn't mean that all the pieces – technical, policy, governance – have been put in place behind the scenes everywhere."
Ms. Lyons has already spoken with rural residents of British Columbia disappointed that they will not have access to the new service.
No federal agency is currently responsible for co-ordinating Canada's 911 system, operated by hundreds of public and private providers across the country. Each must approach the switch to T911 individually, while working with local mobile service providers.
While users will soon be able to register their phones in Canada's largest city, both the Toronto Police and the Ontario Provincial Police have warned regulators about the challenges of implementing T911.
"In spite of our best efforts, we and many [operators] across Canada will not be ready," the OPP warned in a letter on March 14, calling on federal regulators to "reverse the decision or discourage the practice" of sending texts on 911 networks.
In the United States, text-to-911 service is available throughout the states of Maine, Iowa and Vermont. Verizon also offers the service in scattered counties across the country.
A report delivered to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission last October by former commissioner Timothy Denton warned of "shortcomings" in Canada's national 911 system that threatened to see the current patchwork network fall apart as consumers adopt new technologies that strain increasingly antiquated call centres.
Authorities continue to caution that texts to 911 will not work for the vast majority of Canadians.