Radio dead zones may stall medical-help between Lake Cow and Renfrew

The section of the Pacific Marine Circle Route between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew has questionable cellphone service. - BC government
The section of the Pacific Marine Circle Route between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew has questionable cellphone service.
— image credit: BC government

If you are one of the growing number of people driving the Pacific Marine Circle Route, be forewarned: help is not necessarily a phone call away.

The B.C. Ambulance Service assures travellers its radio service and back-up options are dependable, but cellphone reception between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew can be poor. Motorists can expect delays in help arriving, or being reached at all.

Lake Cowichan fishing-business owner Mike Woodhouse pointed out his concerns in an email to the News Leader Pictorial.

“Locals and visitors have no idea help is hours away if there is an accident out there,” he said. “It makes me shudder thinking of someone hurt in a car wreck waiting for someone to drive an hour to get cell service, or to find a pay phone.”

His mayday stemmed from conversations with Lake Cowichan log truckers, and retired mill workers.

“My understanding is there is no radio communication at all, from Lake Cow to Port Renfrew, for the paramedics, something I see is a real safety hazard,” his email says. “I have heard the local ambulance service barely has any radio coverage in the Port Renfrew (area) at all.”

Not so, explains an email from B.C. Ambulance Service spokesperson Kelsie Carwithen.

“BCAS has a robust telecommunications system in place for the Marine Circle Route area,” she said. “This system ensures paramedics can communicate quickly and efficiently with each other, the BCAS Vancouver Island dispatch centre, hospitals, and other emergency service agencies.”

In an emergency, she says, paramedics have access to several communication methods: a VHF radio system; satellite-phone capability in both the station and ambulance; and access to the Ministry of Transport radio system – a radio-to-telephone system.

“BCAS maintains good ongoing business relationships with telephone/cellular providers, and we work closely with them to ensure consistent, high quality service,” Carwithen says.

A Telus agent was unavailable by deadline Tuesday to comment about poor citizen cellphone reception on the circle route.

Ambulance Paramedics of B.C. spokesperson Bronwyn Barter did not have first-hand knowledge of the local situation, but said communication problems aren’t uncommon in rural and remote B.C.

She chalked gaps to remote geography, fickle weather, and technical snafus.

“(Near Tofino) there are dead areas where dispatch can’t get ahold of (ambulance crews).”

That could mean paramedics are unaware of an accident on the road behind them, one they could circle back and attend, she said. Or bad reception may mean a patient has been ordered to another hospital.

“It’s something we address and bring up.”

To better pinpoint communication gaps, the APBC suggests folks to report problems to its staff, and to the B.C. Ambulance Service.

Barter noted BCAS has been receptive to ambulance-communication craters raised by the paramedics union, and done what it can to remedy issues.

“It’s a safety issue for paramedics, and we need to be able to communicate. Lots goes on on these (remote) roads. Log-truck drivers are often the eyes and ears out there.”

Barter understood modern technology has its bugs.

“Things can always go wrong. Sometimes a tree’s down, or it’s bad weather. These glitches can happen, and we have such diverse terrain in this province.”

Carwithen suggested simple actions “such as alerting family or friends of your route and time of arrival/return can greatly assist first responders in the event of an emergency.”

Motorists with concerns should dial 911 for help.

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