B.C. 911 call diverted to Quebec during phone outage fails to connect with emergency services

Kelowna, B.C., resident Barb Teichreb was home last Saturday afternoon when her neighbour texted to ask if she heard a loud alarm going off.

When Teichreb, 62, opened the front door of her home, she heard the alarm wailing nearby. She worried it could be an emergency, so she called 911. 

What happened next came as a shock: the 911 operator had never heard of Kelowna. Even worse, he wasn't able to connect her to local police or fire departments. 

"I kept thinking if this was a real emergency I would be absolutely unable to get any help at all," she said.

Teichreb, a Bell customer, had placed the 911 call during a cellphone outage last weekend that affected customers across British Columbia with all carriers to various extents. 

Barb Teichreb

According to Bell, Teichreb may not be the only one of the company's customers in Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George who had trouble connecting to 911 that day.

Bell says it doesn't know how many of its customers in those three cities weren't able to connect to local 911 service providers between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m. PT on Saturday.

The company eventually rerouted emergency calls to a national service centre in Quebec, which is where it thinks Teichreb's call may have ended up.

For Teichreb, the fact that she wasn't able to get through to police or fire that day is unacceptable. 

"For emergency numbers not to work is just not OK whatsoever," she said.

'Totally useless'

Problems with mobile phone lines across B.C. started at around 1 p.m. Saturday when a landslide near North Bend knocked out a fibre cable. 

Backup systems — which normally would have kept the connection to local 911 service providers in Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George — were compromised, because of a landslide the week before in Hope, B.C., Bell said. 

Teichreb says she gave up on the 911 call after the agent tried to help her for eight minutes. She then tried to call the non-emergency lines for her local RCMP and fire department, but she couldn't get through. 

"I felt completely, totally useless," she said.

RCMP say the outage affected non-emergency lines at its detachments, although police throughout the province emphasize that 911 services were still available. 

Bell appears to be the only telecom that experienced problems with 911 service in the province that day.

The company says the landslide didn't knock out its text and data services, and Bell customers could call each other but not customers from other service providers. 

Questioning the 911 system

Bell says it's still investigating last weekend's outages, but Teichreb's call appears to have gone through to its national call centre in Quebec — a backup system that services 911 calls throughout the country. 

The agent wasn't able to connect her with local emergency services, Bell says, because the outage affected inter-carrier calls.

The company says it worked quickly to ensure its agents could connect callers to the 911 dispatch system, and to redirect 911 calls from Kelowna, Kamloops and Prince George to the Quebec call centre. 

But that didn't happen until 6 p.m. on Saturday. Bell says it's still not sure what happened to its customers' 911 calls in the five-hour window starting at 1 p.m. that day, or how many people may have been affected by the problem. 

For Teichreb, the incident and Bell's response prompts more questions than it provides answers. 

"It makes a person question the 911 system," she said.

Bell says it's "reviewing all aspects of the outage in cooperation with other service providers."

The company says its 911 and voice services were returned to normal by Sunday at 10 p.m.

Are you a B.C. resident who had trouble connecting to emergency services last weekend? We want to hear from you. Contact our reporter Maryse Zeidler at maryse.zeidler@cbc.ca