Friday, January 9, 2009

Teen died because of delayed 911 response

The death of an 18-year-old British Columbia man who called 911 from his cellphone while lost in the woods on New Year's Day is the latest in a string of incidents that highlight serious problems plaguing Canada's 911 system.

Matt Armstrong's body was found about 10 hours after Mounties received a 911 call from him on Jan. 1. The high-school student had told a dispatcher he couldn't find his way out of the dense forests south of Williams Lake.

A newspaper investigation recently found that last year alone, there were at least four fatal or near-fatal incidents in Canada involving cellphone or Internet callers who had trouble getting help after dialling 911. The probe discovered that a lack of federal oversight, regulatory loopholes and outdated technology have left Canada's emergency dispatchers scrambling to find callers who place 911 calls from a cellphone or Internet phone.

Armstrong's friends and family are adamant he'd still be alive if Canada had technology that allows emergency workers to quickly pinpoint the location of a caller using a cellphone or Internet phone. The service is already available in the United States and Europe.

“This didn't have to happen,” Deidre Cahoose, Armstrong's girlfriend, said during a tearful interview. She was the last person to see him alive. The young couple, who lived together, had left a house party on the south edge of Williams Lake around 3:40 a.m. They parted after getting into a fight. Deidre said she called his cellphone and that he told her he was walking home and would be there soon. The last time they spoke was at 4:30 a.m.

At 5:06 a.m., police received Armstrong's frantic call that he had become lost in the forest. Police quickly began to piece together his final moments and by 6:30 a.m., they were at Deidre's home looking for clues. They also interviewed people who attended the house party in an attempt to figure out where Armstrong could have gone.

According to police, officers tried several times to make contact by phone with Armstrong but calls went unanswered. A helicopter and dog unit were eventually called in, and around 3 p.m., searchers found his body.

An official cause of death hasn't been released, but it is believed Armstrong died of hypothermia.

Charlie Sinclair, Armstrong's great-uncle, said that money shouldn't be an issue when it comes to upgrading Canada's telephone emergency system if lives are at risk. Adding the ability to locate cellphone callers if the person on the line can't speak or identify a location would cost an estimated $50 million. There are now nearly 21 million wireless subscribers in Canada. More than half of all 911 calls placed each year are made on cellphones. (info from Toronto Globe & Mail)

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