Nova Scotia

Cell service is so poor this rural firefighter worries people can't call for help

A deputy fire chief in Nova Scotia's Antigonish County is raising concerns with longstanding gaps in cell service in the region, saying the problem is slowing response times and impeding people's ability to call for help.

Deputy fire chief in Antigonish County says problem longstanding, slowing response times

A deputy fire chief in Nova Scotia's Antigonish County says poor cell service is hurting people's ability to call for help. (CBC)

A deputy fire chief in Nova Scotia's Antigonish County is raising concerns with longstanding gaps in cell service in the region, saying the problem is slowing response times and impeding people's ability to call for help.

North Shore Volunteer Fire Department Deputy Chief Kristen MacEachern said she's been aware of the issues with service since she joined the department over a decade ago and knows there were concerns "long before me."

"It adds stress to an already stressful situation," she told CBC's Information Morning. "When we get these calls, unfortunately one of the things that runs through my head is, 'I wonder how long that person had to wait before someone could call, or before they could call.'

"I'm always so scared that we're not making it there on time."

Serious consequences

MacEachern believes the gaps in service have had dire consequences. A year and a half ago, a woman's car overturned in the area, but she wasn't able to call for help because of a lack of service. A passerby who found her had to drive down the road in order to make a call. 

In another instance from the early 2000s, a woman riding a four-wheeler died after it overturned on the trail and pinned her. 

"It was just so avoidable," said MacEachern. "It was not the crash that had taken her, it was exposure after the fact. She wasn't able to get through to 911."

MacEachern said that incident was before her time with the department, "but I'm 100 per cent certain right now, today, we have no better service now than we did then, and that was years [ago]. It's frustrating."

Problems paging members

The gaps in service also affect the ability of members of the department to communicate with one another and other first responders, MacEachern said.

Because they were sometimes having trouble using pagers due to spotty service, the department added an app called IamResponding to page firefighters through their cellphones. But messages sent through that app don't always go through.

"When part of your response team aren't getting those calls, you're down those people, and every single person matters that are called, no matter what the call is."

MacEachern said the North Shore Volunteer Fire Department and other fire departments have presented their concerns to the county, but it's not been able to deliver upgrades to cell service. 

"I don't know what else to do other than what we're doing."

County conducting survey of gaps

Owen McCarron, the warden of Antigonish County, said it shares MacEachern's concerns and has committed to setting money aside "to encourage industry players to come to the table."

"To date, nobody has come forward on that front," he said.

McCarron said they're also working with the local MLA and MP on getting the companies that serve the area to acknowledge there are concerns with service in parts of Antigonish County. 

McCarron said industry has not yet responded to those concerns. The county is currently conducting a survey to see where there are gaps in cellular and broadband connectivity. 

"We view it as something that in 2018, we shouldn't be struggling to get cell coverage in a reasonably populated area of Nova Scotia." 

Heather Robinson, a spokesperson for Rogers, said in a statement that "we are always exploring opportunities to expand our network and always welcome conversations with local communities about improved coverage."

Isabelle Boulet, spokesperson for Bell Aliant, wrote in an email statement that "advanced communications networks are expensive to build and operate, and the business case for expanded wireless coverage in areas of low population density is especially challenging with private investment alone."

Boulet wrote that while Bell is always looking at expansion opportunities, it currently has no announcements of enhancements for the area. 

But MacEachern said there shouldn't be such a big difference between low and higher population density parts of the province, noting everyone pays the same amount on their cellphone bill.