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Editorial: Severed service

Published on August 8, 2017

A map posted by canadianoutages.com shows the extent of outage reports across eastern Canada.

Maybe it’s a wake-up call — or, at least, an attempt at a wake-up call.

Last Friday’s sudden cellphone mini-calamity — the damage apparently caused when two fibre optic cables were accidentally severed by construction in or near Drummondville, Que., — left public officials scrambling across the Atlantic provinces.

Bell and Telus cell service went down, along with service to Virgin and Koodo users. Debit and credit systems went black in some locations; aircraft check-ins didn’t work, and some internet service was affected.

More importantly, 911 service in a number of locations in Atlantic Canada either couldn’t be accessed by cellphone, or, in some cases, couldn’t be accessed at all.

In Halifax, volunteer firefighters were told to head to unstaffed fire departments to ensure those stations could be dispatched despite the system failure. In St. John’s and Saint John, emergency vehicles were dispatched to strategic locations so that people without cell connections could easily access services.

What’s worth thinking about in all this is that, even though cellphone systems have gotten more robust and backup systems do exist, everything doesn’t always go right. And sometimes, the first time anyone realizes there’s a problem is when everything goes dark.

In a lot of ways, more than ever before, we have a significant number of eggs in a very small number of baskets: many people have no landlines at all and depend exclusively on cellular coverage. Others who still do have landlines use home phone options that are reliant completely on internet service.

And things can and do go wrong. A 2006 fire in a telephone company system in St. John’s blacked out communications and other emergency dispatch for hours. A 2011 cable cut in northern New Brunswick — along with a faulty backup system — caused a three-hour communications blackout. Further afield, a 2011 satellite technical issue cut off long-distance phone service, internet and halted air travel out of Nunavut for almost 12 hours.

During any of those instances, it’s possible that someone’s life could hang in the balance.

And remember: every single one of the above-mentioned incidents was the result of a cable-severing or something else that could truly be classed as accidental.

Anyone setting out to actively disrupt the system could obviously be much more effective.

The message is that nothing is failsafe, and you can’t always depend on emergency services to be only a phone call away.

The other thing emergency services should take away from it? As rare as these occurrences are, emergency officials not only have to plan for them (and they already are planning) but they have to let citizens know ahead of time what to do if emergencies strike and there is no dial tone or cell tower available.

And for everyone else? Pay attention, so if that time comes, you’ll be ready, too.