British Columbia

One of the last places in Canada without 911 service finally gets coverage

People in Fort Nelson, B.C., previously needed to call 10-digit phone numbers for emergencies.

People in Fort Nelson, B.C., previously needed to call 10-digit phone numbers for emergencies

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

One of the last places in Canada without 911 service is finally covered by the emergency number.

Residents of Fort Nelson, B.C., and the sprawling Northern Rockies Regional Municipality in B.C.'s far northeast can now dial 911 for police, fire or ambulance, says Fort Nelson Mayor Gary Foster. 

Previously, they had to use 10-digit phone numbers for each individual service.

As of today, though, people in the region can use a cellphone or landline to connect with an answering service based in Grande Prairie, Alta., which will then connect callers to the appropriate emergency service on the ground.

Previously, if someone required emergency services in Fort Nelson, they had to dial a 10-digit phone number. (Northern Rockies Regional Municipality)

Foster said he hopes the service will help improve the safety of people living in and visiting the region.

The lack of 911 service has caused problems in the past, particularly in the summer tourist season when people drove through town on their way to Alaska or Yukon, unaware the service didn't exist.

That's what happened to Tammy Kaleta in 2016 when she woke up to find her travelling companion having a stroke in a motel room.

"I dialled 911 and it just went red," she told CBC in an interview about the situation.

Although local leaders have long advocated for 911 service, it was difficult to implement due to the area's large size and small population.

Traditionally, 911 calls are funded through a levy imposed on home phone numbers.

But with approximately 6,000 people in the large region, and only an estimated 2,000 landlines as more people switch to cellular services, money for the municipality to pay for 911 itself wasn't available.

In 2018, the municipality hired Pomax, an "independent emergency consulting service" that helped bring provincewide 911 service to rural Newfoundland and Labrador in 2014.

Foster also pushed for provincial funding through the Union of B.C. Municipalities.

He said both those efforts paid off as Pomax and the B.C. government came together with telecom services to help set up the service.

However, there are still challenges ahead.

Large parts of the Northern Rockies Regional Municipality are still not covered by cell service, something Foster is also working to change.

Additionally, the community is facing three months without any passenger flight services, which residents rely on to get to medical appointments.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Kurjata

CBC Prince George | @akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is an award-winning journalist covering Northern British Columbia for CBC Radio and cbc.ca, situated in unceded Lheidli T'enneh territory in Prince George. You can email him at andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca. You can also send encrypted messages using Signal to 250.552.2058.

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