Fiona aftermath: N.S. premier irate over telecoms’ response to storm

Nova Scotia premier Tim Houston today called on Canada’s telecommunications firms to be far more “collaborative” with the province’s Emergency Management Office (EMO) and for the federal government to hold them accountable to Atlantic Canadians impacted by hurricane Fiona.

In a letter sent to federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry François-Philippe Champagne, he asked that Ottawa take action and ensure telcos provide information about service outages in the hurricane’s aftermath.

Houston noted that more than four days after the storm hit, many Nova Scotia residents are still without access to reliable communications, which means they are not able to call 911 in an emergency.

“Nova Scotia is currently recovering from Hurricane Fiona, possibly the largest and most devastating storm to ever hit our province,” he wrote. “I have the unfortunate task of writing to you to express my disappointment with the poor participation and support from telecommunications companies before, during and after this event.”

Houston told Champagne that the Nova Scotia EMO began preparations for Fiona a week ahead of its arrival. At that time, EMO contacted “key infrastructure partners” to request they send representatives to the Provincial Coordination Centre (PCC).

“Given the expected impacts on power and telecommunications, having a representative attend in person was imperative for optimal collaboration and support of recovery efforts,” he wrote. “It is my understanding that not one telecommunications company was initially willing to send a representative to the PCC.

“Only after complaints from EMO to their senior leadership did Bell agree to send an agency representative in person, and they attended two days before announcing they were working virtually. Eastlink, Rogers, and Telus participated in briefings and communicated with staff virtually, but declined to attend the PCC in person during the initial response.

“It was only after three days and public and media pressure that the companies sent representatives in person to the PCC.”

Houston went on to say that other key partners, including Nova Scotia Power, the Canadian Red Cross, Halifax Regional Municipality, and Cape Breton Regional Municipality actively sought opportunities to communicate regularly with Nova Scotians during and after the storm.

None, he said, “have declined an opportunity to participate in media interviews or daily provincial press briefings, which have been broadcast live on the radio and are one of the only ways to reach Nova Scotians with no cell or landline service.

“Our telecommunications partners have had little to no involvement in these briefings. Their absence is notable. When they do make a spokesperson available to media, questions about how many customers are without service and where, and when Nova Scotians can expect to have their service restored, have largely been unanswered.”

Houston asked Champagne, whose department oversees Canada’s telecommunications companies, to consider “all potential legislation and regulatory means to hold (them) accountable for participating in emergency planning, preparedness, response, mitigation, and recovery to the fullest extent possible.”

In an accompanying press release, also released today, he said that residents have questions about “when their service will be restored, how widespread the outages are and what the companies plan to do to ensure this never happens again.

“It is unacceptable that there are Nova Scotians who can’t call 911 or connect with loved ones during this difficult time. There is no question we need our telecommunications companies to step up and be more transparent.”

According to the release, Bell is responsible for 911 infrastructure in Atlantic Canada and for trunked mobile radio infrastructure, used by all first responders in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

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Paul Barker
Paul Barker
Paul Barker is the founder of PBC Communications, an independent writing firm that specializes in freelance journalism. He has extensive experience as a reporter, feature writer and editor and has been covering technology-related issues for more than 30 years.

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