B.C. region hires outside help to bring 911 service to far northeast

Residents in the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality — which comprises around one-tenth of the area of mainland B.C. — must dial 10-digit numbers for local fire, police and ambulance services.

Sparse population unable to fund emergency calls, with residents having to dial 10-digit numbers instead

A patient is transferred from one ambulance to another outside a Wonowon rest stop, between Fort Nelson and Dawson Creek. (Tammy Kaleta)

A sparsely populated region of northern B.C. hopes the same firm that brought 911 service to rural Newfoundland and Labrador and the Northwest Territories might be the answer to more than a decade of calls for help.

The Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, centred around Fort Nelson, is one of the few remaining places in Canada that does not have 911 service.

Instead, people in the region — which comprises around one-tenth of the area of mainland B.C. — must dial 10-digit numbers for local fire, police and ambulance services. 

"You're adding confusion to a potentially serious situation," said Mike Gilbert, the regional development officer for the municipality. 

"I mean, the expectation of 911 is universal."

Funding shortfall

It's especially problematic for visitors travelling the Alaska Highway to Yukon, who instinctively dial the number in emergency situations.

It's what Tammy Kaleta did in 2016 when she woke up to find her travelling companion having a stroke in a motel room three hours outside of Fort Nelson.

"I dialled 911 and it just went red, and it went, uh, sorry," she told CBC in a 2016 interview about the situation.

The lack of service comes down to funding, Gilbert explained. Traditionally, 911 calls are funded through a levy imposed on home phone numbers.

But with approximately 6,000 people in the region, and an estimated 2,000 landlines as more people switch to cellular services, Gilbert said the budget simply isn't there.

Fort Nelson, part of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality, is closer to the Yukon border than it is to Fort St. John, the nearest B.C. city. (Simon Charland/CBC)

After various attempts working with the provincial government to come up with a solution stalled, the municipality has now hired Pomax, an "independent emergency consulting service" to help.

The company helped bring province-wide 911 service to rural Newfoundland and Labrador in 2014 and drafted a plan to expand the service in the Northwest Territories a year later.

Gilbert hopes Pomax will be able to find a way for the regional municipality to work with the province so 911 service can be funded despite the sparse population. He's optimistic the province will be on board with a creative solution to the problem.

"I think government realizes our situation," he said. "We would like to help them help us."

With files from Nicole Oud and CBC Daybreak North.

About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George.