By Mariah McCooey-A lowbed truck carrying a backhoe across from the Qay’llnagaay construction site snagged the fiber optic lines last Tuesday afternoon (July 19), partially pulling down several poles and severing the phone and internet link.
Queen Charlotte, Skidegate, and Sandspit residents suddenly found that their debit and credit cards were useless, that they could not call off-island or even to the north end of the islands, and that the internet wouldn’t connect after the accident occurred around 3:30 pm.
Interestingly, a lack of communication is what caused the communication blackout in the first place. Mitch Richardson at the Qay site said that normally, these types of trucks have radios, so they could have radioed the driver to say ‘stop, you’re stuck on the lines!’ but for some reason, there was no radio contact.
According to Alison Vale at Telus, BC Hydro alerted them to the fact that their lines were damaged around 4:30 pm. A team from Terrace chartered a plane and arrived on the scene around 8:30 pm, and they worked through the night until it was all fixed by 5 am the next day.
People had many questions about the situation, and not a lot of answers – an aspect of the incident that Queen Charlotte emergency planner Ann Mountifield is concerned about.
“There really was no information as to the cause or duration,” she said. “This is a matter of concern to the emergency preparedness committee.”
Ms Mountifield said she “doesn’t have any immediate answers” but that this kind of communication blackout situation is something that needs to be discussed.
“I want to reassure people that the need has been identified,” she said.
Potential solutions could be the coordination of satellite phones that are available here on island, or communication via ham radio, which can relay information long distances.
The credit union in Queen Charlotte had to use a satellite phone to contact its headquarters in Prince Rupert and let them know what was going on, according to Northern Savings’ Debbie McMillan. All the debit machines, ATMs, and internet connections were down, causing some confusion with customers, who called and came into the bank to ask about the problem.
One customer from Masset was particularly unhappy Tuesday afternoon after driving all the way down to Queen Charlotte for some shopping, only to discover that her interac and credit cards wouldn’t work. They were unable to help her at that bank, said Ms. McMillan, because they couldn’t even connect with the Masset branch.
Ms. McMillan said the problem was mitigated by the fact that most people have cheques here as a Plan B.
“It’s a good backup,” she said, “any kind of electronic system is subject to failures.” Especially here on the islands, where power outages and other obstacles are not unusual. The situation was similar to when a mudslide south of Masset wiped out all communication lines for three days, she said. Everyone was thankful when they came in Wednesday and everything was working normally.
In Sandspit, Laurie Burrows relies on the internet connection to receive crucial information for her autistic child. He is undergoing a behavioural analysis program via internet, phone and fax, which is administrated from California.
“There was information we needed,” said Ms Burrows, “and we missed some of it.”
The Co-op in Skidegate was affected “big time,” according to employee Marchel Shannon. With no interac and no credit cards, there were huge lines on an already busy Tuesday. “It was a huge inconvenience,” she said, “but there’s not much you can do about it.” Luckily though, the truck hit the day before the big Co-op sale – otherwise Ms Shannon said there would have been “a lot of grumpy people.”
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