Innovating emergency communications for a safer British Columbia


Since its inception, E-Comm has been dedicated to using innovative technologies and practices to help in the organization’s mission of providing excellence in emergency communications to its partners and to the public.

This dates back to E-Comm’s beginnings, when the creation of the Wide-Area Radio Network offered police, fire and ambulance personnel in Metro Vancouver the critical ability to communicate directly with one another over the airwaves—a stark contrast to the early 90s when first responders all operated on separate networks. This interoperable radio system, which continues to be one of the largest of its kind in North America, was a huge innovation that forever changed the way first responders communicate with each other.

Since the beginning of the pandemic through to the organization’s ongoing service level challenges, E-Comm has strengthened its position on the need to innovate through its service delivery mandates including the technologies, tools and processes used to deliver those services. Through periods of increased demand and spiking call volumes, the ability to pivot to different workflows and new mitigation strategies play an important role in ensuring the public gets the help they need, when they need it.

“In part, excellent emergency communications services are those that adapt quickly to match the evolving needs of public safety services. Whether these changes are driven by technological or socio-economic factors, E-Comm’s technology and information management systems must keep up to meet current demand but also to fulfill the potential of future needs.”

Tony Gilligan,
Vice-President of Technology Services
Innovation Illustration Clip

Service outages, such as the one experienced on May 5 in the Central and Southern Interior of British Columbia, highlight the fact that B.C.’s 9-1-1 infrastructure is aging and updates are necessary to ensure this critical service is resilient and ready for use by those who need it. With that in mind, one major push for innovation in emergency communications is the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) mandated modernization of 9-1-1 services across Canada to a Next Generation 9-1-1 network. This new system will address the changing communication needs of E-Comm’s public safety partners and the public, who have become accustomed to the enhanced capabilities of smartphone technology, by changing to Internet-based networks. Internet-based networks are more adaptable to support new features, like allowing callers to communicate with 9-1-1 through real-time text messaging services—a potentially life-saving feature for someone unable to speak due to a medical concern or being in an unsafe situation—and the eventual possibility to send video to 9-1-1 as evidence obtained during an emergency situation.

In April 2021, E-Comm took the first major step in British Columbia’s transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 by successfully transferring a voice call in a proof of concept test environment. Extensive testing of this nature is important to ensure new technology is validated before implementing it in life-or-death emergency situations. E-Comm has now completed all major testing in the proof of concept environment and has begun planning the build and implementation of the system. British Columbia’s transition to Next Generation 9-1-1 is expected to begin in 2024.

Many first responder partners joined E-Comm in showcasing the abilities of the public safety broadband network during a demonstration event hosted by the Vancouver Fire Rescue Services in March 2020.
E-Comm's Voice Systems Technologist Gary Tam assisted with the first-ever call transfer in the Next Generation 9-1-1 testing environment.

While the needs of emergency callers are changing, so are the needs of E-Comm’s first responder partners. Emergency events are becoming more dynamic, increasingly drawing on additional and varied resources compared to events of the past. The need for strong situational awareness on the ground is critical for allowing emergency personnel to better understand unfolding situations and the required response.

In 2018, E-Comm’s Technology Services teams engaged with key technology partners, BC Hydro, and the BC Government in the creation of a demonstration Public Safety Broadband Network (PSBN), a dedicated cellular network for first responders.

Although not intended to replace the invaluable radios used during emergency response, a PSBN allows for enhanced communications types like the transfer of rich data such as photographs or video and communication between different types of tools and devices—all of which can be key to truly understanding an emergency event and increasing situational awareness.

“It can be difficult to shift from an operational mindset to an innovative mindset, where questioning the status quo and pushing for change is encouraged,” explains Gilligan. “The challenges over the past few years have truly shown us that innovative solutions and practices are what will best position E-Comm to provide valuable services to our partners and to ensure that British Columbians know that when they dial 9-1-1 in an emergency, someone will be there to answer their call for help.”