Nfld. & Labrador

'Gone back 40 years,' chief says as west coast fire departments lose Bell pagers

Several volunteer fire departments got an unpleasant surprise this week, when Bell discontinued its paging system in Eastern Canada.

'It's a major concern for our community,' says Lark Harbour fire chief

Colin Tucker is chief of the volunteer fire department in Meadows. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

For most of us, pagers are a forgotten technology, the quaint ancestor of the smartphone that harkens back to an app-free time.

But in 2019, some fire departments in Western Newfoundland still relied on pagers as a vital link for emergency dispatching.

That is, until June 30. 

That's when Bell Aliant pulled the plug on its paging services in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario, citing few remaining customers. The telecommunications company told CBC it notified those customers back in November, but several volunteer fire departments in and around the Bay of Islands say they didn't get that memo.

"I had no idea," said Paul MacDonald, chief of the Lark Harbour and York Harbour Volunteer Fire Department, when CBC contacted him to ask about the change.

Bell Aliant pagers like this one no longer work in Atlantic Canada, Quebec and Ontario. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Used to quickly alert volunteer firefighters to an emergency call, the pagers didn't need cell service to work.

That's a necessity for the Lark Harbour area, which sits entirely out of coverage range and is a 45-minute drive from the nearest police station or hospital. Its fire department is often the first one able to respond to a 911 call.

"It's a major concern for our community," said MacDonald, who isn't sure what workaround is available, beyond stepping further back in time and relying on landlines, though for now its pagers are still working using a local pager system.

Fire departments transitioning

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Municipal Affairs and Environment said the affected fire departments are transitioning to an "alternate service provider" following the termination of Bell's pager system. 

Officials from the fire services division are working with the towns and their fire departments to co-ordinate with the RNC on emergencies as the departments switch over. 

It said Meadows, McIvers and Gillams moved to a different pager service provider last week, while work on the systems for Steady Brook and Hughes Brook-Irishtown-Summerside is set to be finished Tuesday. 

Lark Harbour is beautiful — but also completely without cell service. (Submitted by Nancy Murphy)

Colin Tucker is the fire chief in Meadows, which installed what he describes as "a mobile radio set up on a tower, almost like a fire station mobile radio" after the town found out on Wednesday that Bell service had ended. 

"We got fire members that rely on pagers because two kilometres west of my home, in Meadows, there's absolutely no cell service. So you've gotta have a pager," said Tucker. 

Trouble is, he said the new system only works within a small radius, unlike the Bell system, which worked all over the island, and he's missed more than half of the calls made since Thursday.

"If there's a life in danger, somebody's going to be burned, somebody's going to be killed," Tucker said, blaming the provincial government for failing to ensure adequate pager service was in place. 

"We're gone back 40 years. When a local person had a fire in their home, they would know a local fire department's number that they would have to call that number and then we would have to call each member to go back to the fire hall, so it's crazy."

Dispatch overhaul needed

An hour's drive from Lark Harbour, Steady Brook-Little Rapids Deputy Chief Shawn Leamon was also caught off guard, initially thinking the paging service was simply out for temporary repair.

Each fire department CBC spoke to was unaware of the end of the service, and Leamon is worried others may still be in the dark.

Steady Brook-Little Rapids Deputy Chief Shawn Leamon says the province needs to figure out a cohesive emergency dispatch system, similar to what Nova Scotia has in place. (Lindsay Bird/CBC)

The Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in Corner Brook said it had used the paging system to contact various volunteer fire departments in the Bay of Islands area, but it does have other methods to ensure communication would continue.

With the luxury of cell service in his response area, Leamon said his department can use a smartphone app for emergency alerts. But that app had previously connected to the pager system, and without pagers, it takes longer for the app to get notifications out.

"Seconds count when you're in an emergency," he told CBC Radio's Newfoundland Morning.

"We're basically compromised on our potential response."

Leamon said the end of pagers highlights a big problem in Newfoundland and Labrador: its patchwork of dispatch systems for first responders.

"Provincially, we need to look at our entire emergency response communications systems," he said. 

He'd like to follow in the footsteps of neighbouring Nova Scotia, which he said has a radio system that links emergency responders.

While 911 services were expanded in 2015 to include all of Newfoundland and Labrador, Leamon said the behind-the-scenes organization of getting first responders to the scene is less clear cut.

The end of paging adds an urgency to Leamon to get such a system in place. Given the nature of firefighting, it's only a matter of time until the next emergency.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Newfoundland Morning

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