No signal: Village's poor cell service leads to close calls

The village of Clayton, Ont., is just 20 kilometres from the nation's capital, but try getting a cell signal there.

Residents of Clayton, Ont., often unable to reach 911 in emergencies

This sign greets motorists entering the village of Clayton, Ont. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Entering the village of Clayton, Ont., you'll pass a red and white road sign announcing "911 saves lives."

That may be, but only if you can get through.

Residents of the rural hamlet on Clayton Lake say there have been numerous emergencies during which callers couldn't get through to 911 operators because of poor cellular service, even though they live just 20 kilometres past Ottawa's western boundary, and just minutes from the larger town of Almonte, Ont.

"You'd have to live here a long time to understand where you're getting the bars and the service," said Clayton resident Paul Watters.

Watters should know.

Longtime Clayton resident Paul Watters knows where to go to get a bar on his cell phone, but worries others don't. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Medical emergency

Last November, when an 87-year-old Silver Cross mother collapsed during a Remembrance Day ceremony at the community hall, it was Watters who leapt into action.

The community centre has no landline, and a dedicated VOIP transmitter was out of action that day. Watters ran to a corner of the building where he knew he could get a cell signal strong enough to make a voice call to 911.

Paramedics arrived, but were unable to save Bobbie McCormack's life. Watters worries the next time someone dies, it will be because there are no bystanders who know where to find cell service, and instead decide to take matters into their own hands.

"The comments we have in this whole area is, put 'em into a car. Pop 'em into a car and see if you can drive and then hopefully we can get the ambulance to meet you somewhere on the way to the hospital."

In an emergency, you wouldn't be able to get through to 911 from this playground beside the Clayton Community Centre, or from the nearby baseball diamond. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Though both Rogers and Bell wireless coverage maps show Clayton and the surrounding area blanketed by LTE coverage, Watters knows from experience that's not true.

"The biggest fight is, who do you call? How do you get that respect? That's our biggest problem."

Injured by horse

In February, riding instructor Susan Harrington was brushing down one of her horses when something spooked the animal.

The horse bucked the trainer into the edge of the stall door, breaking four of Harrington's ribs and puncturing a lung.

She lay on the stable floor for half an hour, waiting for someone to come. No one did.

In February, a startled horse tossed Susan Harrington into stall door, breaking several of Harrington's ribs and puncturing a lung. (Stu Mills/CBC)

"I've got to get up and I've got to call the ambulance, because if I don't I'm going to lay here and die," Harrington remembers thinking.

She managed to crawl up some stairs to an apartment where she'd left her mobile phone. She tried in vain to get through to 911, and eventually crawled back downstairs and into the frozen barnyard. Still no signal.

Harrington crawled about 100 metres toward a distant farmhouse before bars finally appeared on her phone and her 911 call went through. She spent three days recovering in hospital.

Riding instructor Susan Harrington suffered several broken ribs and a punctured lung when one of her horses bucked into her. She says she was unable to call 911 from her cell phone. 1:35

'We're very fortunate'

Chris Armstrong is also frustrated with Clayton's poor cell service.

One morning in February 2018, Armstrong's 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son set out for high school in the family car. They hit a patch of black ice, sending the vehicle spinning off a bridge and plunging five metres into the Indian River.

The teens helped each other out of the car and up the steep, snow-covered riverbank. Armstrong's son wandered up the deserted road, trying to find a cell signal to call his dad. Eventually he got through, but the signal was too weak for father and son to hear each other.

Sensing something was wrong, Armstrong jumped into another vehicle and soon found his children waiting at the roadside, cold and scared but not seriously injured.

"We're very fortunate," Armstrong observed.

Chris Armstrong was unable to hear his 15-year-old son who was calling from the scene of a serious car crash last year. (Stu Mills/CBC)

$152M to improve coverage

Last week, three levels of government announced a $152-million investment to improve rural cell coverage in eastern Ontario, from Hawkesbury to Peterborough. 

Infrastructure Canada said the money will go toward 317 new communications towers and 32 internet access points to improve overall mobile coverage.

Howard Robinson, a Clayton resident and retired Nortel engineer, uses a mobile app to track cell tower signal strength. It shows very few places in town with reliable service.

He believes it will be more than two years before the funding announced last week benefits Clayton, and he fears there will be more close calls before that happens.

"I'd like to see Bell Canada or Rogers or Telus do what they say is covered here. Their coverage maps show that this place is green for LTE service — and it's not," Robinson said.

Howard Robinson searches his phone for an LTE signal on a stretch of Galbraith Road, about seven kilometres from Clayton, Ont. (Stu Mills/CBC)

Bell, Rogers reply

In an email, Bell spokesperson Jacqueline Michelis said while the company does indeed provide LTE signal coverage in the Clayton area, "signal strength can vary and optimal coverage may not be available at all times."

Michelis acknowledged providing adequate coverage to sparsely populated areas is a challenge, and said Bell is "always open to partnering with various levels of government and communities themselves to come up with solutions for expanded coverage."

In a statement to CBC, Rogers said it has several wireless towers in the larger municipality of Mississippi Mills, and will continue to monitor the quality of its coverage in the area.

Stu Mills brings stories of the impact in Clayton, Mississippi Mills 7:36


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