Province unveils new 911 centre

Commissioner and executive director of emergency management and fire safety Duane McKay shows off the new 911 dispatch centre as Kristin Peterson, one of the telecommunicators on staff, stands by to demonstrate some of the system. (Peter Lozinksi/Daily Herald)

Government also announces new crown corporation responsible for managing emergency dispatching, raises 911 fees

For several years, anyone who called 911 outside of Regina and Saskatoon had their emergency calls fielded in a sort of unexpected place – the basement of Prince Albert’s city hall.

About eight staff members were crammed into a space of about 700 square feet, the size of a small one-bedroom apartment. As use of the service, and the requirement for new technology grew, it became harder and harder to accommodate the 911 dispatch centre in the city hall basement.

They won’t have that problem anymore.

On Thursday the Government of Saskatchewan unveiled their new, state-of-the-art 911 dispatch centre, located in the Natural Resources Canada satellite station about 15 minutes northwest of P.A. The new facility has already been in operation for a few months.

The government also announced the formation of a new Crown corporation to oversee 911 services, which were previously managed by the city.

“Today marks a historic occasion for public safety in Saskatchewan,” said Minister of Government Relations Larry Doke.

“This new Crown will help meet the needs of our growing province and the demands of our current technology to ensure we continue providing excellent emergency communication services for all Saskatchewan residents.”

The government also announced that 911 service fees will be increased by 32 cents per month. Fees for mobile users have remained the same since 2010, while landline fees have not seen an increase since 2003. That money goes directly to the 911 services, and not to the General Revenue Fund.

The new Treasury Board Crown is not like the Crowns overseen by the Crown Investments Corporation, which includes SaskTel and SaskPower. Instead, it is being put in place to help coordinate and manage 911 services, replacing the services previously provided by the city.

The city was managing payroll and human resources for the 911 dispatch centre. It was becoming a strain on city staff.

“There is no new funding for this,” Doke said. “Everything remains the same. We’re not losing any staff here. It’s just being absorbed by government.”

The new facility is spacious and provides room to grow. Each desk can be converted into a standing desk, so operators aren’t sitting in one place for 12 hours at a time. The entire facility is also on its own emergency backup power, and has multiple other backup and fire suppression systems in place. According to emergency management commissioner Duane McKay the centre is set up to operate through just about any emergency, while allowing for investment in new technology. The attached server room houses all the computer systems, with a complicated network of kilometres of cable neatly organized and hidden beneath a false floor to avoid tripping hazards.

“(The 911 centre) has been expanding quite a bit over the past five or six years,” McKay said.

“People are communicating differently than when I was younger. All of those demands have increased the need for technology, and with that technology comes people to support it.

“In addition, the number of dispatch agencies and the need to ensure we meet national standards for dispatching and call taking have increased the staffing levels on the operational side as well.”

The centre handles all 911 calls that come in from outside the province’s two largest centres. It also monitors alarms at 15 Wing Moose Jaw, dispatches over 400 fire and rescue services and provides dispatch for several provincial law enforcement agencies, such as conservation officers. But it didn’t start that way.

“It started in 1997 with 10 or 12 municipalities and has expanded,” said Prince Albert city manager Jim Toye.

“Over 60 staff members working 24/7, 365 days a year. They were in the basement, and we also leased them a few offices at city hall, but it still wasn’t enough. We also needed the room at city hall, so we started conversations with the previous minister, Minister (Donna) Harpauer.”

The space vacated by the 911 centre has already been filled.

At the same time the city was hoping to get out of the 911 dispatching business, the federal government was looking for someone to lease out space at their facility outside of town. Technological advances had led to their team at the satellite station using less space. The move made sense for all the parties involved.

“We worked well with them, but it was a big business, and it’s important the people of Saskatchewan get the service they need when they call 911. I think with this move, they’re going to be able to provide that in an efficient way,” Toye said.

“We needed space, and they needed it for the safety of their staff. Now, they have this beautiful facility and we have more room at city hall, so we shake hands and move forward.”