New radio system that played 'lifesaving role' in Fort McMurray launched across Alberta

Alberta has launched a new radio communications system which it says will let first responders communicate with each other more effectively. The system, which took eight years to develop, costs $438 million.

Played 'pivotal' when communications broke down during wildfire evacuation in May

Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley (front) announced a new communication system for first responders in Alberta on Thursday. (supplied)

A new radio communications system for first responders that is credited with saving lives in the Fort McMurray wildfire evacuation has been launched across Alberta.

The new system was pressed into action on May 3, when a wildfire threatened the city of Fort McMurray.

The system "played a pivotol part, and I may say a lifesaving role, during the Fort McMurray wildfire crisis," said Brad Grainger, deputy chief of the Fort McMurray fire department.

Currently, all police, emergency medical and fire services in Alberta use their own stand-alone radio systems that reach others within their own organization — but generally do not communicate across groups. 

Starting on July 1, the new Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System (AFRRCS) will use a system of hundreds of radio towers to create a network available to all emergency personnel. 

 On May 3, the wildfire severely damaged the radio tower causing the entire communications network to go down, Grainger explained.

Provincial officials immediately sent portable radios and a mobile unit to Fort McMurray, he said, with first responders relying on cell phones to communicate during a period of about two hours.
Vehicles clog highway 63 on May 3 as residents of Fort McMurray flee a wildfire threatening the city. (CBC)

System aided in safe evacuation

Grainger credits the new system with aiding officials in the safe evacuation of over 90,000 people, and in saving 93 per cent of the community from being destroyed by fire.

"We would not have been able to respond and co-ordinate over 32 different fire departments, first responders, that came to our aid and stayed with us during the peak of the wildfires," Grainger said..

Later on May 3, the 9-1-1 communications centre went down and was also evacuated, he said, 

"It was (the system) that allowed us to use our portable communication and literally took 9-1-1 calls in the back of a moving emergency vehicle as we travelled down the highway," Grainger said.

It's about safety, minister says

The system has been eight years in the making, and will cost $438 million, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley said Thursday.

Yearly upkeep and rental cost for the towers will be an additional $17 million for the province, she added.

"This provincewide radio system will ensure that the people who keep us safe every day have the communication network they need to respond as quickly and as co-ordinated as possible," Ganley said.

Municipalities and their agencies have access to the towers for free, but will have to pay for the radios they need to access the network. The basic model of radio is available for about $1,200.