The 2008 Michener Award finalists talk about their award winning stories and the people who helped make them happen – Michener Awards Ceremony, June 10, 2009.
A six-month investigation of Canada’s 911 system for handling telephone emergency calls found that outdated technology was being used in Canada while industry and regulators dragged their feet on changes. After the investigation the federal government ordered a nation-wide update of the country’s emergency phone system, including technology to locate 911 calls from cell phones.
Your Excellencies, distinguished guests, colleagues – good evening.
It’s a privilege to be here with my fellow nominees this evening whose work I have a lot of respect for. And it’s good to see Ed Struzik in the flesh. I’m from his part of the country and out west, Ed’s a bit of a god.
It was a year ago now, that the Globe and Mail launched an investigation into Canada’s aging 911 system.
The story began with a single tragedy that exposed the outdated technology 911 dispatchers across the country were being forced to use. Though Canadians have embraced innovation – we carry cell phones and many of us are using the Internet to make phone calls – the 911 system has been left behind.
This has resulted in several tragedies, but we truly had no idea of the extent of the problems.
When a baby died in Calgary last summer, it was a circumstance that seemed too impossible to believe. A frantic family places a call to 911 as their son lies choking, and the ambulance is somehow dispatched three provinces away in Ontario.
The first question that must be asked is how can this happen? Indeed the family was using a new kind of Internet phone. But as regulators and the telecom industry hastily laid the blame at the feet of the family, and washed their hands of the issue, a more fundamental question needed to be asked. How could this be allowed to happen? Who is in charge of 911 in Canada, and why has it failed?
Over the next six months, with the support and resources offered by the newspaper, the Globe and Mail investigation began uncovering more tragedies. This was not blip, it was a trend.
Canada’s 911 system was struggling to keep up. But even though Internet phones had exposed the issue, the true crisis existed in the inability to find cell phone callers who dial 911 – and yet about 50 per cent of emergency calls now come from wireless phones.
But cataloguing tragedy was not the point. Showing how to fix the problem – and that it could be fixed – very easily in fact — was the public service that needed to be performed.
The technology to update Canada’s 911 system exists, and all of it is very affordable for the telecom industry, which for years had managed to convince regulators that the problem was too expensive and difficult to fix.
It turns out it wasn’t that hard. Only a month after the story was published regulators ordered a wholesale upgrade of Canada’s 911 system, which we will start to see the benefits of in the spring.
It could not have been done without the unwavering support of many Globe editors, starting with John Stackhouse who saw the need for this story — even when we weren’t sure what the story was.
Former editor in chief Edward Greenspon, Managing Editor Sylvia Stead and Features Editor Catherine Bradbury and publisher Phillip Crawley each provided the editorial and legal support needed when a news organization takes on a powerful opponent as we did here. And it is the result of countless hours of work from others including editor Kelly Grant to help make complex issues accessible.
But the real credit goes to the families of 911 tragedies who offered their stories, and to the 911 dispatchers who put their jobs on the line to speak out. We would not be here without them. And Canadians would not now have a safer 911 system without them.
On behalf of the Globe and Mail, thank you.
Michener Awards Ceremony
June 10, 2009