Manitoba will spend $380 million to replace aging emergency communications system

It will cost $380 million to replace Manitoba's aging FleetNet emergency communications system, the provincial government announced Wednesday.

Bell Mobility wins contract to replace lambasted FleetNet system

Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires shows off the new handheld device that will be carried by emergency personnel to communicate with each other during emergencies. (CBC)

It will cost $380 million to replace Manitoba's aging FleetNet emergency communications system, the provincial government announced Wednesday.

Bell Mobility won the tender to replace the outdated digital public communications system, which connects dispatchers and emergency personnel in the field via mobile radio but has been afflicted by numerous outages.

The previous service has long been lambasted by emergency personnel, especially after the system went down in 2012 during a wildfire in southeast Manitoba.

"We were told that users experienced frequent service failures and that certain parts were no longer manufactured, and replacement parts were being sourced on eBay," Sustainable Development Minister Rochelle Squires said at a news conference in West St. Paul on Wednesday.

The new system will replace handheld radio devices with digital technology and add five towers to the province's existing network of 153.

The equipment will include GPS (global positioning system), advanced radio encryption and equipment compatible with systems outside of Manitoba to ensure co-ordination during emergencies.  

The new emergency communications system will be implemented over a three-year period.

The government said Manitoba is the last province to replace its emergency communication system.

System failed during wildfire

Chris Goertzen, Association of Manitoba Municipalities president, said his organization passed a resolution in 2012 calling on the province to make upgrades.

Goertzen said the push was made after the system failed during a wildfire in the municipality of Stuartburn. Some firefighters were at risk because of the failure.

Reeve Jim Swidersky told CBC Manitoba's Information Radio on Wednesday that emergency teams were forced to stand on street corners and yell at each other because the FleetNet system didn't work.

"This situation should never have happened," Goertzen said.

Brent Bekiaris, chair of the Paramedic Association of Manitoba, applauded the pending arrival of the new system.

"It demonstrates a commitment to safety for all Manitobans."

Gary Semplonius, a senior vice-president with Bell Mobility, said the company has already installed at least four emergency radio communications systems in provinces across Canada.​

Cellphone service criticized

​The emergency communications replacement announced Wednesday is a completely separate network from the cellular and data delivery relied upon by the vast majority of Manitobans.

Telecommunications companies have faced criticism for not expanding their cellular coverage in rural areas, especially following the tornado near Alonsa, Man., that killed a man last week.

Many in Alonsa say they didn't get the emergency warning about the tornado due to inadequate cellphone service.

Semplonius, who attended the announcement Wednesday, said Bell MTS is looking at problems with services in the region.

Semplonius says the company has been expanding its cellular footprint in Manitoba and upgrading its coverage to an LTE system in several regions.

The telecommunications executive told reporters Bell MTS was "working with the province, with the municipalities and with our customers to make sure we are providing coverage in the right areas."

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