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60 years of 911 in Winnipeg

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On June 21, 1959, Winnipeg became the first city in North America to provide what today is known as the 911 emergency phone number.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/06/2019 (1320 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On June 21, 1959, Winnipeg became the first city in North America to provide what today is known as the 911 emergency phone number.

“It was amazing. When you think of the technology in 1959, for that to exist, was something pretty amazing,” said Stacey Cann, 911 service supervisor of communications.

On Friday, the Winnipeg Police Service recognized six decades of the service, which has provided “a lifeline to the citizens of Winnipeg, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

In this undated photo, two operators work the switchboard of Winnipeg's original three-digit emergency service - 999. (Supplied photo)

It started with a switchboard and eight female operators who worked shifts in pairs around the clock for seven days a week to staff the single point of emergency contact. The 999 number, which replaced 32 different service phone numbers, handled about 300 calls per day at the time.

The emergency number was changed to 911 in 1975, and the switchboard was replaced in 1990 by a computer network.

“There was a lot of media attention on that at the time, and there was a slow process to change it (to 911). It went over the course of about a year,” Cann said.

“Our switchboard got retired officially in 1990, and at that time, we started to get location information — callers’ home addresses, phone numbers and names — which is something amazing when you think. Even in 1990, it’s pretty awesome that we were able to get that.”

She said a computerized phone system was brought into action in 1999.

“In the next couple of years, we’re going to be going to what’s called ‘next generation 911’,” she said, describing it as a digital telephone system that will be able to receive texts and video.

A Winnipeg Free Press story from Feb. 24, 1959, announced the 999 service that would begin in June as “every municipality in the metro area will be covered” by the single emergency telephone number.

The story names St. James mayor Thomas B. Findlay, West Kildonan mayor C.N. Kushner and St. Boniface mayor J.G. Van Belleghem as the driving forces behind the move.

The Winnipeg Police Service recognized six decades of the emergency phone service on Friday. (Mikaela MacKenzie / Free Press files)

“These men saw the 999 emergency system operating in Britain, and Mayor Findlay made the original suggestion that it be tried in Greater Winnipeg. The mayors were in Europe as members of the Greater Winnipeg Investigating Commission,” according to the Free Press.

The story stated the “sole holdout” who opposed the 999 system was St. Boniface alderman David Parent, who “saw the single number as an attempt by ‘dictator Winnipeg’ to lead St. Boniface into amalgamation.”

St. Boniface fire chief E.R. Gagnon was quoted as saying: “I think it is a progressive move. It may be the beginning of a national system.”

The old 999/911 switchboard is on display at the Winnipeg Police Museum (245 Smith St.).

ashley.prest@freepress.mb.ca

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