Phone outage highlights need for other communication methods, says fire chief

Grand Falls-Windsor fire chief says people should prepare for phone outages — like the one that struck Atlantic Canada's Bell and Telus customers on Friday — to be the "new normal" in emergencies.

Grand Falls-Windsor's Vince MacKenzie says families should put plans in place

Families need alternative means to connect with each other if phone networks go down, says Fire Chief Vince MacKenzie. (CBC)

The Grand Falls-Windsor fire chief says people should prepare for phone outages — like the one that struck Atlantic Canada's Bell and Telus customers on Friday — to be the "new normal" in emergencies.

Vince MacKenzie told CBC's Central Morning Show on Tuesday he wasn't surprised at the confusion that greeted Friday's outage, with stores and banks closing.

"I knew there would be anxiety, especially with the outage of both cell and home phone service and data services as well," he said.

Kids today are so used to just pressing the number for "Mom."- Vince MacKenzie

"It's almost going to be the new normal when it comes to emergency planing now, because as technology advances we've become very accustomed and used to our cellphones and we rely on them a great deal now."

When there's a sudden loss of that kind of service, people lose their "situational awareness" of what's happening, and don't have alternative means of communication.

"You should have an emergency communications plan for your own family," said MacKenzie, who suggested family members should discuss other means of communication and a place to meet in the event of an emergency.

"That's as simple as saying, 'We're going to meet at grandma's house on the other side of the town.'"

People don't know telephone numbers like they used to

Thanks to cellphone contacts, said MacKenzie, people today often don't actually know others' phone numbers, which can be a problem when a cellphone is out of service or lost.

"Kids today are so used to just pressing the number for 'Mom,'" he said.

One group in the province that didn't lose communications on Friday was amateur radio operators, who have a network connecting St. John's to Newfoundland's west coast.

We want people to look after each other from a neighbourly point of view. Check on your neighbours.- Vince   MacKenzie

The group works with fire and emergency services and was standing by in case there were messages that needed to be relayed, Andrew Green, president of the Society of Newfoundland Radio Amateurs, told CBC's St. John's Morning Show on Tuesday.

"We were pretty busy," Green said.

"In situations like this, it's perfect. Where traditional communications go down, we still have backup communications for emergency or, as in the normal case, our own personal use."

Cellphone service was gone down in a large part of Atlantic Canada on Friday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Families need very basic plans in place, said MacKenzie.

"One is how do you communicate when there's a total loss of communications," he said.

"Two is how do you prepare for 72 hours on your own without help, because in a major emergency, emergency services usually get overwhelmed to the point where people have to fend for themselves. Three: we want people to look after each other from a neighbourly point of view. Check on your neighbours."