CRTC awaits 'detailed explanation' about Bell blackout in Atlantic provinces

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is awaiting a "detailed explanation" from Bell Aliant about a service outage last Friday that affected customers in all four Atlantic provinces.

Regulatory authority wants to know how Aug. 4 service outage affected 911 emergency services

Many people lost communications during the Bell disruption. (CBC)

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is awaiting a "detailed explanation" from Bell Aliant about a service outage last Friday that affected customers in all four Atlantic provinces.

Among the details requested by the independent regulatory authority is "the impact on [the] ability of citizens to reach emergency services," Céline Legault, a team leader for sector services, said in a statement.

"The CRTC will assess this information when it is received to determine if next steps are required."

According to Bell, two major fibre links were cut by third-party construction work, disrupting cellphone, landline, internet and TV services for customers of Bell and Telus, and their respective sister companies, Virgin and Koodo. 

In the thick of the blackout, as emergency service providers in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, P.E.I. and Newfoundland and Labrador instructed the public on how to reach them, there was confusion about whether people could reach 911 using their cellphones or landlines.

911 'reliable and resilient'

According to the CRTC, people with cellphones are able to call 911 even if their network is knocked out or they don't subscribe to any service. In emergencies, phones will use the roaming feature to connect to another carrier.

"The 911 networks in Canada are reliable and resilient," said Legault. "As a result, very few 911 service outages that impact the delivery of 911 voice calls have occurred over the last five years."

Still, the CRTC is establishing requirements regarding notification of 911 service outages and requires all 911 network providers to file an annual report on any network outages that cause 911 service outages, said Legault.

Ambulance New Brunswick says it experienced wireless outages but still managed to deliver emergency service. (CBC)
Emergency services such as Ambulance New Brunswick put contingency plans into effect, but the disruption in phone service still proved instructive.

"As with any event, we will be debriefing to evaluate areas for improvement and lessons learned," Jean-Pierre Savoie, director of operations at Ambulance New Brunswick, wrote in an email.

One problem surfaced immediately in the general confusion over what worked and what didn't after Bell lost service at about 11 a.m.

"Our dispatchers were not able to connect to our paramedics through trunk mobile radios, cellphones, pagers, and our automatic vehicle location system," Savoie said.

Because of the communication gap, paramedics had to be called back to their stations and were asked to use landlines for calls for assistance, he said.

Non-emergency transfers on hold

"We ensured that our local managers remained in contact with our dispatch centre via landlines," he said. "They assisted with the movement of ambulances on a local level."

Meanwhile, the agency suspended transfers of patients in non-emergency cases to make better use of ambulances, Savoie said.

Six non-emergency transfers were put on hold, but the service resumed moving those patients at 2:50 p.m. that day. 

Less successful was another element of the agency's planning, which was to make sure each team of paramedics was equipped with Toughbooks, laptops designed to withstand being dropped, extreme temperatures, rough handling, and spills.

Paramedics were unable to use them.

"The extent of the outage prevented access to our network," said Savoie.

But once recalled to their stations, paramedics were able to respond to emergencies, he said. 

"We were able to send crews to patients in need," Savoie said. "Again, our ability to adjust at the stations enabled us to respond to challenges as they arose."

Savoie said he was not aware of any delays in the response to calls for assistance.

"Local radio communication was not compromised by the outage, so paramedics were able to provide patient reports to the receiving health-care facilities."

The Department of Justice and Public Safety said it will be looking at ways to improve its plans, working with Bell directly.

Public Safety Answering Points received many non-emergency calls from mobile users to see if 911 worked, said Genevieve Mallet, a spokesperson for the department.

She said the department and several other emergency response organizations were reminding the public 911 is for emergencies only.

With files from Francesca Swann