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Holly Barkwell

The World of 9-1-1


Jonathan van Bilsen

November 16, 2022

One of the many services we rely on is probably one of the more antiquated in existence. I am referring to the emergency services, responding to 911 calls, made up of 30 year old, somewhat obsolete, technology.

The reason I begin my column with this topic, is my guest this month, is Holly Barkwell, a person who is very involved in transitioning the very outmoded, analogue emergency response system, into the digital age.

Holly Barkwell has a background in information technology, but worked in the mining industry. Working underground for two years, near her hometown of Timmins, was gruelling. During a downsize of the firm, in the mid-nineties, Holly found employment with a small dispatch company, specializing in response software for ambulance and fire departments.

At the time, software was revolutionary. “It would help dispatchers gather information from callers, which would then enable them to send the proper equipment to the right location. It would help in determining the type of emergency, as well as the best route to take,” Holly explained.

It was also a time prior to GPS, although AVL (automatic vehicle locater) software was in existence. AVL is a system which uses transponder technology, and tells a central dispatch where a vehicle is.

From there Holly moved to a firm in Hamilton, which wrote software, incorporating direct communication between companies and fire departments. It was a product which greatly enhanced emergency service, especially where fire and rescue vehicles were involved. The system saved five minutes or more, which is a tremendous amount of time, especially if a fire is raging.

I was stunned when Holly explained the current 911 system was implemented in Ontario, in the early seventies. No wonder it is time for an upgrade. Back in the day, when you picked up the phone and dialled 911, because it was analogue, Bell Canada knew exactly where you were located. It also made it possible for dispatchers to know where to route the service vehicles.

The systems now used by various response entities, have been continually upgraded over the years, but the basic network has not changed. The first thing that came to my mind was, Google knows exactly where I am at any given time, but dispatchers at 911 need me to tell them my exact location. “The reason is quite simple,” Holly explained. “Google has billions of dollars, whereas the emergency response systems depend on public funding.”

In Canada, we have a federal agency dedicated to public safety, but the 911 systems and operation are the responsibility of each province.  In most cases, this means municipalities govern their own essential services. The CRTC (Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission) regulates the carriers, which supply the communications network.

The burden falls on the individual municipality. Although there is a public safety ministry, the police are governed by the Solicitor General, ambulance and paramedics fall under the Ministry of Health, and fire services are looked after by the Fire Marshal's office.

I was surprised to hear there are countries in the world without 911 (or equivalent) systems, but more surprised to learn there are pockets within Canada, especially in the North, that do not have the service.

Holly went on to explain, the current 911 system is designed to deliver voice, with very limited ability for data. This worked when everyone had a landline, but since the introduction of mobile phones, location tracking for an analogue system is at best, a close guess. This is especially true in apartment blocks..

Holly Barkwell is the Canadian representative of NENA (National Emergency Number Association), which is responsible for education, legislation and standards and best practices. Her firm, Barkwell Holland Group, helps organizations with change, in finding issues and developing solutions.

One of the first elements of changing the emergency response system to digital, will be exact location services. Every smartphone has a GPS chip, which will give 911 actual location data, i.e. apartments, basements, etc. The current system can only deal with approximates, causing crucial delays.

The new system will not only be able to pinpoint locations, but will also be able to determine the nature of the emergency, the type of equipment required, and the best route to connect the two. Fortunately, we are less than two years away from the start of this new transition.

I also asked Holly about personal data security, as many of us are doing banking on line and on our phones. We keep hearing about companies being hacked, but I was curious what we can do to prevent misuse of our data.

Her reply was simple. Do not use public Wi-Fi to do anything, which could be compromised. She also added, make sure to log out of systems before closing browser sessions. This will make third party entry difficult.

It is also important to change the administrative options of your router, when you set it up. If you use the same username and password, which came with your router, hackers already have manufacturer information and are able to steal your data.

In a nutshell, hacking into a system is not that difficult. People can illegally get in through Google or Alexa devices, your Wi-Fi router or any of a number of various peripherals. Once in the network, however, the only areas they can continue trolling are browser windows you have left open or online programs you have not logged out from.

For more detailed information about Holly Barkwell or the emergency response system, watch the Scugog Chamber of Commerce Speaker series available on YouTube and Rogers TV.

Jonathan van Bilsen is a television host, award-winning photographer, published author, columnist and keynote speaker. His show, ‘The Jonathan van Bilsen Show,’ on RogersTV, the Standard Website or YouTube, features many of the people included in this column.

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