Nfld. & Labrador

St. John's calls for probe into Aliant outage

The City of St. John's is calling for an independent inquiry into the collapse of Bell Aliant's telecommunications system in St. John's late Friday night.

The City of St. John's is calling for an independent inquiry into the collapse of Bell Aliant's telecommunications system in St. John's late Friday night.

If that doesn't happen, St. John's Mayor Andy Wells says, the city will call on the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission to investigate.

"I don't think that it's enough that [Bell Aliant] investigate it themselves," said city commissioner Ron Penney. "We were given assurances by Aliant that there was redundancy built in."

Aliant's telecommunications system— and its backup— were knocked out for about four hours, making 911 and other services inaccessible to about 100,000 people.

Phone lines, cellphone service, bank machines and internet access were also affected.

The issue dominated city council's regular meeting on Monday evening.

Mayor Wells said he was alarmed to learn that Aliant had — prior to the outage Friday night— refused to participate in an emergency exercise planned for Wednesday.

"As it turns out, one of the scenarios that we are going to be practising is the loss of communication— particularly this kind of problem— and we asked Aliant to participate in our exercise and they refused to do so," Penney told the meeting.

"It doesn't sound to me like it's good enough," Wells said.

"Listen here, you guys, if we need Aliant there, you should come. 'No' is not acceptable."

Brenda Reid, Aliant's public affairs manager in St. John's, said Monday evening that she was not aware of the specifics of the exercise and would look into the matter Tuesday.

Aliant said a cable connector that had become dramatically overheated caused other equipment to catch fire. After using three fire extinguishers and calling the fire department, a technician manually shut down the system to make it easier to firefighters to do their work, and to limit the spread of the blaze.

Contingency plans under review

The incident has prompted various organizations to rethink their contingency plans, and proved how dependent people have become on telephones and cellphones.

"We relied a lot on being able to contact people either by their home telephone, by a cellphone, or by pager, and in some cases, all of those three opportunities were gone," said Eastern Health chief executive officer George Tilley.

To obtain additional staff early Saturday morning, Eastern Health knocked on employees' doors.

CBC Radio is Canada's emergency broadcaster, but for more than an hour during the outage only static could be heard. Somehow, the outage knocked CBC Radio's signal off the air.

Janice Stein, managing editor of CBC in Newfoundland and Labrador, said the public broadcaster needs to change its plans so that it is less reliant on the phone company.

Stein said CBC is considering VHF radios as well as obtaining another satellite phone.

"A key thing is to get an uplink… of our programming so we don't have to depend on Aliant for that service," Stein said.

The Emergency Measures Organization has planned a meeting for Tuesday to talk about what changes ought to be made to ensure the consequences of the Aliant outage will not be repeated.