Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

311 plan awaits first call

New city hotline expected to free 911 for emergencies

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Winnipeg's 311 telephone service should be up and running this month, fulfilling the final recommendation from the investigations into the February 2000 deaths of two women whose repeated calls to 911 were ignored.

Nearly nine years ago, sisters Doreen Leclair and Corrine McKeown placed five calls to Winnipeg's 911 emergency line over an eight-hour period. When police finally arrived at their home, the siblings had been stabbed to death by McKeown's ex-boyfriend, Bill Dunlop, who is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder.

A provincial inquest into the sisters' deaths and a city audit of its 911 communications centre revealed serious flaws in the way Winnipeg handled emergency calls, resulting in a series of improvements and new procedures early in this decade.

But the final improvement -- a 311 line to field non-emergency inquiries and reduce traffic on vital emergency lines -- has proven difficult to implement since former mayor Glen Murray first pledged to get the service up and running in 2002, when he flew to Chicago on a fact-finding mission.

Winnipeg's single-desk telephone service will finally go online before the end of January, said Mayor Sam Katz, who initially pledged to create a 311 line in 2005 as one of the recommendations of his red-tape commission.

"What we'll be able to do, as I've said before: 'Burning building, (call) 911. Burning question, 311,' " Katz said earlier this month. The mayor first uttered those words during his 2006 re-election campaign. At the time, he pledged to have 311 running by the end of 2007 and use the system to track the progress of inquiries to ensure city staff follow through on citizen questions or complaints about everything from potholes to building permits.

But Katz's pledge proved impossible to accomplish during that time frame. It took project managers longer than expected to weigh the pros and cons of delivering the new service under three different models: contracting out the telephone service, handling the job with existing city equipment and staff or developing some form of public-private partnership.

In October 2007, the city reached a deal with the Canadian Union of Public Employees Local 500 to consolidate 22 existing call centres into a single 311 service without outsourcing any labour. That deal called for the city to create and operate a 311 call centre at a cost of about $31.1 million over its first five years.

In February 2008, city council chose to place the new call centre in an 11,000-square-foot office space in the cityplace building at a cost of $1.1 million for renovations and furnishings.

Project managers have spent the rest of the year preparing the transition from 22 separate call centres to a single 311 desk. City officials say the long-awaited project is on schedule for a January launch.

"This will be one wonderful thing for our city, once people really understand what it does. It will be fantastic," Katz said. "People will appreciate one number, as opposed to hundreds of numbers out there."

Federal broadcast regulators initially paved the way for a 311 service in Winnipeg in 2004, when it granted seven Canadian cities permission to use the number to handle non-emergency calls.

Callers who dial 311 in Winnipeg now will hear a recorded statement promising the line will be in operation by the end of the month. A formal launch will take place in coming weeks, city officials say.


The road to 311

Winnipeg's nine-year journey toward the creation of a single-desk telephone call centre:

2000: Sisters Doreen Leclair and Corrine McKeown (above) are stabbed to death by McKeown's boyfriend after calling 911 five times over an eight-hour period in February.

2001: A provincial inquest into the sisters' death, as well as police investigations and a subsequent city audit, reveal serious flaws in Winnipeg's overburdened emergency communications centre. Recommendations for improvement include the creation of a 311 line to handle non-emergency calls.

2002: Former mayor Glen Murray flies to Chicago on a 311 fact-finding mission.

2004: The CRTC approves Winnipeg's application to use 311 for non-emergency calls.

2005: Mayor Sam Katz's red-tape commission recommends the creation of a 311 telephone service,

2006: Up for re-election, Katz pledges to get 311 up and running by the end of 2007.

2007: The city reaches a deal with its largest union to create a 311 call centre without contracting out any labour.

2008: Cityplace is chosen to be the home of the new call centre.

2009: 311 is slated to replace 22 separate city call centres before January comes to a close.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 2, 2009 A3

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