Nunatsiaq Online
NEWS: Nunavut January 09, 2014 - 8:35 am

Wireless technology fails Iqaluit blizzard test

“Plain old telephones” worked as back-up

PETER VARGA
Ed Zebedee, director of protection services for Nunavut, said his office found wireless communications to be a key weakness in dealing with emergencies and safety issues in Iqaluit during the Jan. 7 blizzard. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)
Ed Zebedee, director of protection services for Nunavut, said his office found wireless communications to be a key weakness in dealing with emergencies and safety issues in Iqaluit during the Jan. 7 blizzard. (PHOTO BY PETER VARGA)

The most advanced communications technology isn’t worth much if you don’t have electricity to keep it running.

When electricity failed and battery power ran out in eastern Nunavut’s Jan. 7 blizzard, which centred on Iqaluit, the best communications back-up proved to be “plain old telephones” with all-wire connections.

“About 37 per cent of households in Canada do not have landlines,” said Ed Zebedee, director of protection services for the Government of Nunavut.

“A lot of people operate just solely on cell phones, or a lot of people have portable phones in their homes.”

When the power goes out, portable phone connections also die, as do cell phone connections when batteries run down, Zebedee pointed out.

Loss of power can’t stand in the way of Zebedee’s office of protection services, which oversees preparations for emergencies throughout Nunavut.

But on Jan. 7, the agency found wireless technology limited their ability to communicate once power outages became more widespread.

The answer, Zebedee said, was to ensure all staff involved in emergency measures have a POT, as he called it, or a “plain old telephone” – completely connected by hard wires.

“If you lose power, you can plug the old-style telephone in, and you still have communication,” he said Jan. 8. He said he expected this weakness in the system would be covered as soon as Jan. 9.

As an added precaution, protection services has sought a third back-up to cover the loss of a wired telephone system, he said, “so that we can internally communicate with the major people that would be involved in an emergency.”

The Jan. 7 blizzard, which hit Iqaluit hardest, called for communication between the RCMP and the City of Iqaluit’s emergency services – which includes the fire department and ambulance service.

“Every emergency is different, and a weather emergency has so many unknowns,” he said. “You learn from what worked well and what didn’t.”

On the whole, Zebedee, who has been director of Nunavut’s protection services for more than seven years, said he was happy with warnings and preparations made in advance of the incoming storm.

“The city took a very proactive approach to getting the being prepared-message out,” he said. “We knew that this system was going to hit fast when it came in.

“The city made the call to close down a bit early. And their call was right on. We probably had 25 minutes between when we issued the notices to close before the storm started hitting town.”

Although the blizzard lasted less than 10 hours, its fierce winds, centred on Iqaluit and hitting speeds in excess of 140 kilometres per hour, were unusually strong.

“It was the extreme wind which was very unusual,” said Zebedee. “That was probably the biggest challenge — the winds taking out different systems in town.”

The winds brought down power lines and “a number of power poles were actually broken off,” he said, adding that Qulliq Energy Corp. workers deserved credit for their continued efforts to restore power.

“With the debris flying around, and just the high winds, it was extremely dangerous for the crews that were out,” he said. “They did a great job in keeping power going and getting power back on in very challenging and dangerous conditions.”

Zebedee’s office did not receive calls for assistance in response to the blizzard from other communities in Nunavut.

“As far as I know, Iqaluit bore the brunt of the storm.”

Severe weather incidents appear to be increasing worldwide, Zebedee said, and these are having a greater impact on populations around the world.

“I don’t know how you plan for Mother Nature,” he said. “We keep trying, and try to move our programs forward so that we learn from every one.”

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