Make right call on 911 service

City councillors make choices every week and very few are life-and-death decisions. When it comes to 911, that all changes.

Nanaimo city council was forced to consider a complicated issue last month when it renewed a 911 contract with the RCMP. The police will charge the city $335,000 to run the switchboard, whereas a mainland-based company called E-Comm was offering a comparative bargain, $126,000, for the same service. Council voted 7-2 to continue with the RCMP, presumably deciding it was worth paying extra to keep jobs local and hope that operators answering 911 would have superior local geographic knowledge. (An E-Comm operator could hardly be blamed for hanging up on a sure-fire prank call from Twiggly Wiggly Road.) Public safety must be paramount, within reason, and if a 911 operator’s local knowledge helps save even one life over the next 12 months, then Nanaimo is the better for it.

But will we see that sort of value for our dollar? This six-figure contract only guarantees that someone will pick up the phone and direct our 911 call to police, fire or ambulance, before dispatch takes over from there. If we’re not receiving enhanced service, then we shouldn’t be paying for it.

A municipality must have a co-operative relationship with its police force, so the RCMP’s input should be valued. But the Mounties must understand a city’s budget pressures. Many B.C. communities and regional districts have considered the pros and cons and hired out-of-town 911 operators.

Nanaimo’s newly signed contract with the RCMP has a one-year exit clause. During that time, it’s worth reconsidering how this service should be delivered, and it’s worth investigating the mayor’s idea of a Vancouver Island 911.

This doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. We can have both cost savings and peace of mind when we make the most important phone call we’ll ever make.

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