Thunder Bay

It took 5 years and bake sales, but this rural Ontario area now has 911 service

A rural area in northwestern Ontario finally has the 911 service that volunteers have been working to obtain for close to five years.

Until now, 911 calls went unanswered or bounced to unpredictable locations that had never heard of Niobe Lake

Niobe Lake Fire Chief Matt Eady works on putting up one of the new signs that were purchased and installed by people in the rural area of northwestern Ontario, so that they could have 911 service. New address markers were needed to make the area easier for emergency services to navigate. (Matt Eady)

A rural area in northwestern Ontario finally has the 911 service that volunteers have been working to obtain for close to five years.

Niobe Lake, an unorganized area 180 kilometres northwest of Thunder Bay, Ont., officially launched its new service at the beginning of March.

Residents raised the money to set up the service themselves, at a price tag of a little more than $100,000.

The cost was a big ask for a sparsely populated area, said Matt Eady, the Niobe Lake Fire Chief. He estimates the size of the area, which contains about 350 properties, to be over 500 square km. 

Need to raise funds

"We had to sell it to people," he said, adding that when the idea was first suggested, people balked at the idea of paying several hundred dollars per household to set it up. 

Yard sales, bake sales and auctions were among the fundraisers held to raise the money needed for 911 service in the Niobe Lake area. (Matt Eady)

So volunteers turned to fundraisers — everything from auctions to bake sales — until they raised enough money to lower the cost to $100 per property.

The per household contributions added up to about $35,000, said Eady, and over five years, they managed to raise another $35,000 through community fundraisers.

Cost to map remote area

The firefighters also chipped in some money from their own funds, as did some other organizations, including Quetico Park, and Resolute Forest Products, which owns property in the area. 

Most of the money went toward digital mapping of the area, said Eady, so that dispatch operators in other parts of the northwest, and ambulances coming from Atikokan, 27 kilometres away, can easily pinpoint locations. 

Money well spent, said Eady, to fill a gap in emergency services for both residents, and highway travellers using cellphones. 

Before, a 911 call from a landline would lead to a "this number's not in service" message, said Eady, but cellphones were less predictable. 

Eady looks over a map with consultant Deb Smith, as part of the planning for a new 911 system that launched in the area this year. (Matt Eady)

"We were finding travellers that dialled 911 after accidents, sometimes the calls would be answered in Houston, Texas," said Eady.

"Because it wasn't an area that had 911, somehow the greater computer gods kind of went around in a circle until somebody with 911 would answer." 

Hope for swifter ambulance response

"So it was creating quite a bit of confusion." 

Swifter ambulance service should be another benefit of the new system, he said. 

"It's very much an aging population in our area, and anything we could do to help the ambulance was basically the big selling feature." 

Niobe Lake is an unorganized area along Hwy 11/17 east of Atikokan, Ont. The area spans over 500 square km and includes part of Quetico Park to the south. (Google Maps)

The 911 service has already received several calls, and Eady said he's pleased to see it's working well; however, he wishes it hadn't been up to individuals to make it happen. 

Eady said he'd like to see the provincial government assume responsibility for 911 service, and to fill the gaps in rural areas, which do not have municipal funds to draw from. 

"People's expectations everywhere in the province are that you can dial 911 and somebody will come to help you," he said. 

"But that's not the truth in a big portion of the province of Ontario."