Tornadoes in Ottawa Force Government to Assess Emergency Services

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After tornadoes swept through Ottawa in September, leaving thousands with little to no cell phone service, advocates are calling for the federal government to examine the reliability of Canada’s connectivity during emergencies, reported CBC. According to John Lawford, executive director of the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, currently, there are no regulations setting standards for how long Canada’s cell phone systems should be able to operate in an emergency.

The systems are more vulnerable than they were in the past, as consumers and phone companies move away from traditional landlines which have their own, independent, power supply, Lawford noted.

Another challenge, is that current cell phone systems rely on the electrical grid, said Claude D’Amours, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Ottawa. “When the power goes out they have to switch the base stations to their backup power, which are batteries, maybe some generators, but generally batteries. Those batteries have a finite life, like any battery, like your cell phone battery. And without the grid to recharge those batteries, well, they’re going to run out,” said D’Amours.

Spokespeople from Telus, Bell, and Rogers Communications commented on the outages. Tony Buu, Telus director mobility network and technology strategy for Eastern Canada, said its network uses a combination of generators and backup batteries that can last between four and 10 hours. In addition, Telus activated its emergency plan and deployed more than 30 mobile generators, he said. The company also plans to increase the number of towers to provide more overlapping coverage, reported CBC.

Marie-Eve Francoeur, a spokeswoman for Bell, said an increase in traffic “may have impacted capacity at certain times over the weekend, but the Bell wireless network delivered consistent connectivity.”

Michelle Kelly, a spokeswoman for Rogers Communications, said the company has backup batteries “which have a longer life than average,” although she would not say how many hours they last. During the Ottawa outage, Kelly said Rogers used a combination of backup batteries, permanent generators and almost 60 portable generators to power its network, reported CBC.

Additionally, Ottawa’s city manager, Steve Kanellakos said officials will examine ways to ensure they can communicate with the public and each other in an emergency. This includes creating its own cell phone network with portable towers.

October 2, 2018     

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