Three incidents in the past five months that disrupted 911 service locally have regional emergency services providers seeking solutions to ensure continuous connectivity.
Most recently, on October 18, a motor vehicle incident outside Terrace caused a Telus outage that affected the Smithers, Telkwa and Houston fire departments.
During this outage, a structure fire occurred in downtown Smithers. The outage caused a delay in paging out Smithers Fire Rescue, but the Fire Operations Communication Centre (FOCC) in Prince George was eventually able to establish a line of communication with the fire department for the duration of the call-out.
Two other disruptions in 911 service in June and July also impacted local fire departments in Smithers, Telkwa and Houston.
On June 7, a Telus line was damaged near Topley that affected multiple types of communications, including 911 in the western portion of the Regional District of Bulkley Nechako (RDBN).
Landlines, cellular and WiFi were all compromised, meaning both the primary and backup lines for dispatching 911 calls were not operational. This made it impossible for residents to call 911 or the FOCC in case of an emergency.
The District of Houston was able to acquire a satellite phone from Tower communications, and the Town of Smithers and Village of Telkwa utilized the Town of Smithers mobile command unit, to establish communications with the FOCC.
On July 8, there was a Rogers outage, due to maintenance issues, which disrupted internet services across Canada for approximately 19 hours. Police services reported 911 services were inaccessible on many mobile phones.
While there were no incidents that required fire rescue services during these two outages, the disruptions have regional district emergency services providers looking for solutions.
On Oct. 17, representatives from all the fire departments in the RDBN as well as the FOCC, Tower Communications, and the Regional District of Fraser Fort George met at the RDBN office in Burns Lake to discuss options.
“During emergency situations, time is usually of the essence and any delays could seriously affect the outcome,” a report by Jason Blackwell, regional fire chief for the RDBN stated.
Tower Communications, which is under contract with the Regional District to service all regional district 911 communications equipment, will be providing staff with recommendations for providing a reliable backup system that will ensure communications coverage should another outage occur.
In the meantime, Smithers Fire Rescue has acquired a Base Camp LTE backup communications system, that uses a satellite ground control system installed on one of the trucks, allowing connection with FOCC and other first responder agencies.
“It works in conjunction with inReach satellite communication systems to keep connected to dispatch, in case of an outage again,” said Matt Herzog, fire training officer for Smithers.
“We continue to work with our partners at the RDBN and Tower Communications for solutions, but our new system gives us confidence it will work in the case of outages like we have seen this year.”
Herzog added that residents have a part to play in being prepared.
“One way individuals can prepare ahead for such events is to have your emergency preparedness plan together for yourself and for your neighbourhood,” he said.
“In case of emergencies, your neighbourhood champion will be checking on everyone, and looking for signs displayed in your window that say “Okay” or “Help” for instance, and will know what to do.”
B.C. Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth said it’s now “clearer than ever” that emergencies can strike at any time.
“It’s so important for communities to be prepared and ready to respond before they do.”
The RDBN is waiting for recommendations from Tower Communications on how to maintain 911 services should one of the main carriers experience another outage. A report is expected sometime in the new year.
For more information on emergency preparedness programs, the RDBN, Town of Smithers, Village of Telkwa, and Prepared BC all have information of their websites.