Mark Goldberg

Finding common ground

Frequent readers know that I like to highlight unusual regulatory proceedings.

In today’s chapter, I want to look at an application to expand the use of the 8-1-1 dialing code. N11 numbers are a very limited resource: there are only 8 numbers that can be assigned. We are all familiar with 9-1-1 emergency dialing. 6-1-1 is used for reaching your phone company’s repair service; 4-1-1 is local information. Five years ago, I wrote about the CRTC’s assignment of 5-1-1 for travel information. The full list is available from the Canadian Number Administrator website, which indicates that 8-1-1 is currently assigned for “Non-urgent Health Care Telephone Triage Service.”

In my area, this service isn’t available. Only 4 provinces are currently using the 8-1-1 code and consumers have a very low awareness of its assignment. This past July, the Canadian Common Ground Alliance filed an application with the CRTC to gain access to the 811 code for Call Before You Dig services, as a matter of public safety.

The application received broad public support, including that of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities and there have been endorsements by two federal Cabinet Ministers: Public Safety Minister Vic Toews and Natural Resource Minister Joe Oliver.

Minister Toews wrote:

Public Safety Canada recognizes that the 811 number currently provides a valuable service to the public by offering around-the-clock health information and non-urgent medical advice. Broadening this service to include “Call Before You Dig” would help mitigate unnecessary risks to the public, and reduce interruptions of services provided by critical infrastructure sectors.

Minister Oliver spoke at a the September 29 meeting of the Canadian Energy Pipeline Association, saying:

I know that you are doing your part in maintaining your safety record. I know you fully understand that a good track record in safety and environmental performance helps to create a distinct competitive advantage. This is why we support your campaign to create an “811” number for Canada’s “Call Before You Dig” program.

It is unusual for Cabinet members to weigh into CRTC proceedings; in addition, another federal tribunal, the National Energy Board, voiced its support for the initiative.

The primary cause of disruption to critical infrastructure, such as telecommunications or electrical facilities and energy pipelines, is accidental excavation by homeowners or contractors. It has been 6 years since the CRTC approved the application by Alberta Health and Wellness for the assignment of 8-1-1 “for access to non-urgent health care telephone triage services” [Telecom Decision 2005-39]. Although it was the applicant for the original CRTC assignment, Alberta is not offering the service. Just a few months before the CRTC approved 8-1-1 for health services, the FCC designated 8-1-1 as “the nationwide number for contractors and others to call before conducting excavation activities.”

The provincial health agencies are less enthusiastic, despite the failure by most of them to activate their own service. Even those provinces that have no plans to activate 8-1-1 seem to want to hoard the dialing code and block any other groups from using the scarce numbering resource.

The file is now closed. The CRTC will now need to determine whether to expand the scope of 8-1-1 to include Public Safety, and bring Canada’s assignment into consistency with the US.

2 comments to Finding common ground

  • Scott Henley

    Well said, Mark!!

    I am a retired One Call and Damage Prevention Professional. Henley Consulting Inc. pioneered the installation of Provincial One Call Systems in Canada. The US Common Ground Alliance have today published their annual damage statistics (for 2010), and attribute 811 US wide, as the biggest contributor to buried utility damage prevention in that year!!

    Your support is much appreciated!!


  • Michael McCrory

    I work in the field of Canada’s Critical Infrastructure Protection and know how important it is to have a reporting vehicle like the 8-1-1 call. In this age of technology, there will be more and more critical underground infrastructure. If a break occurs through an unauthorized dig , it could be devastating . The hospitals, the 9-1-1 system, etc can be put at an enormous risk. I fully support this initiative !