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Unreliable cell service in Tagish a problem for EMS

The community is concerned dropped calls could put people at risk in an emergency
Tagish first responders are concerned calls for help that get dropped due to unreliable cell service are leading to longer response times. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News)

Emergency services officials in Tagish say the unreliable cellphone service residents have had since Bell upgraded the local network two years ago is impeding their ability to respond quickly to calls for help — a potentially dangerous issue that could result in tragedy.

The majority of calls to EMS come in via cellphone, Tagish Volunteer Ambulance supervisor Shelley Penner said, and staff often need to call back callers to get more details about the situation or directions to the location where help is needed.

“Now at home, it’s okay, we have a landline, but that’s not usually the case — when you’re rushing around, you’re using cellphones,” Penner explained. “… Unfortunately a lot of times the cell service just drops. You dial the number and it just hangs up, and it can do it four, five times.”

In a field where seconds can make a difference, Penner said valuable minutes are often spent trying to reconnect a dropped or garbled call. The issue hasn’t resulted in a fatality yet, she added, but no one wants it to get to that point before something changes.

The call reliability issues started back in spring 2015, when residents were told the old CDMA network was being upgraded to 3G, Tagish Local Advisory Council chair Myron Penner (Shelley Penner’s husband) said. Residents were given the impression that the old network, which works with older-model phones, would be phased out soon, and most people ditched their old cellphones for new smartphones that would work on the 3G network.

“It was good that winter, and then the spring of 2016, in May-ish, from around there, it started going down,” Myron said. “And of course (Bell) assured us, ‘Yeah, it’s going to get better again,’ but it has not gotten better at all.”

Myron said he’s talked to “a lot of Bell techs” since then who have given him a variety of theories on why the cell service quality suddenly declined. Theories range from leaves blocking signals to antenna deterioration to the network not having enough segments to the antenna being placed at the wrong angle. Myron, though, said Bell’s given him numbers for how many people the antenna is good for and has his own theory on what’s going on.

“It seems as though they’ve miscalculated on how many people actually use cellphones in Tagish,” he said. “One of the big things is, on long weekends or any type of holidays or events where Tagish can double or triple the amount of cell users… the people in emergency services noticed that immensely, on these days when there’s way more traffic in Tagish, it comes to the point where many are telling me that to make a call from (a cellphone) in Tagish, to a cellphone in Tagish, is pretty much impossible.”

Myron said he’s collected lists of “hundreds” of time-stamped dropped calls and sent them to Bell; although some representatives have called him back, he said no one’s actually shown up in Tagish yet to assess the situation or try to fix it.

“I mean, Tagish is a small community compared to all the other communities Bell deals with, obviously…. But everybody was used to a quality, especially emergency services and the system was set up for that, relying on the residents to transfer information through cellphones,” he said, adding that Tagish never had this kind of problem with the old network.

In a phone interview, Minister of Community Services John Streicker, whose first call to the News was dropped as he drove past Faro, said the Tagish LAC has been in touch with him about the network problem and that he’s “heard many concerns from residents in the last two or three weeks.”

“I’ve heard from a lot of folks, but the one that worries everybody is if we’re trying to deal with an emergency and a call gets dropped, or it’s garbled and we can’t hear when the person describes where they’re calling from and you’re not able to reach them, then that becomes a big concern,” Streicker said, adding that the system has reportedly “gotten quite a bit worse” over the past few weeks.

The cell network is being provided by a private business and is not a government service, Streicker said, so there’s only so much he can do, but the recent concerns have “prompted us to try and get Bell working on this more actively.” The company has provided him with an “action plan” on how it plans to investigate the issue, but no dates or timelines were provided for the proposed work.

Other communities, including those in his own riding, have expressed interest in improving their cellphone networks too, Streicker added, but the situation in Tagish is on a different level.

“What’s happened in Tagish, where the service seems to have degraded significantly, that, I’ve not had the level of concern raised by any other community,” he said.

In an email, Bell Canada spokesperson Jacqueline Michelis said Bell is “aware of the situation and working to address the coverage issues as quickly as possible… Our engineers are continuing their investigation. We hope to have a resolution as quickly‎ as possible.” Michelis did not respond to questions asking about whether any Bell staff have recently been in Tagish, the nature of work that needs to be done to diagnose the issue or when the work will be done.

Contact Jackie Hong at