The Regional District of Kootenay Boundary (RDKB) is calling on the province to boost cell phone coverage on West Kootenay highways.
Area directors resolved at the district’s board meeting, Wednesday, Nov. 25, to put the request in a letter to Victoria, citing substantial increases in area highway traffic while the Trans Canada and Coquihalla highways remain closed at vital arteries in flood-stricken parts of southern B.C. Traffic volumes are expected to jump by 525 per cent across Highway 3 near the Paulson Summit and Highway 33, which connects the Boundary to the Okanagan, according to an RDKB news release.
The board’s move comes amid growing concerns among first-responders who say “dead-zones” along stretches of both highways amount to serious logistical challenges. Gaps in radio reception meanwhile pose threats of their own.
Mike Daloise, Chief at Midway Fire and Rescue (MFR), said the lack of cell service makes it hard for 911 callers to give accurate locations of wildfires and road collisions. Motorists who spot these emergencies on Highway 33 typically have to pass through dead zones before they can even phone them in.
“That could be a 20-kilometre drive,” Daloise said, explaining that vital information can be lost between dispatch operators who log calls from well outside emergency zones and callers whose memories may falter along the way. “A lot of times, if people aren’t familiar with the area, they’re not going to be able to give precise directions,” he continued.
All of this adds time and complications to department operations that call for speed and precision, he stressed.
Noting that cellular dead zones tend to overlap with radio dead zones, Daloise explained that there a large highway stretches where people can’t phone emergency services and where these services can’t reach themselves or each other.
“If we don’t have radio comms or cell service when we arrive on-scene, we’re not able to call in more resources or give updates to other first-responders,” he said.
Highway emergencies this summer have amply demonstrated his point. Midway RCMP in July received a complaint from a caller who spotted an erratic driver in a dead zone along Highway 3 between Grand Forks and Greenwood. According to Cpl. Phil Peters, the caller wasn’t able to reach 911 until after the driver’s vehicle flipped end-over-end in a collision that fortunately left no one hurt.
MFR in August responded to a small fire on tractor-trailer hauling highly flammable fuel through a dead zone between Beaverdell and Westbridge. The department was initially called to the wrong location after a caller had left the area to call 911, Daloise said, adding that the department would’ve been hard-pressed to handle the situation had the fuel caught fire.
Speaking to The Gazette Tuesday, Nov. 30, Area Director E Vicki Gee said the RDKB’s board is waiting on a consulting firm’s report that will identify regional communications towers the district can use to boost radio coverage. Gee, whose electoral area covers the West Boundary, said the report will outline preliminary cost estimates which the board will consider moving forward.
The district is pursuing that avenue independently of its request for more cellular connectivity, she said.
The Grand Forks Gazette was awaiting comment from Regional Fire Chief Dan Derby when this story was published online Tuesday afternoon.
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