Don't call 911 to ask how soon power is coming back on after a snowstorm, E-Comm urges

B.C.'s South Coast doesn't often see significant snowfall, so it can be stressful for residents and drivers when the region gets a sudden, major dose of blowing snow that sticks.

Still, when it happened on Sunday, turning evening drives home into a slippery mess, the province's 911 dispatcher issued a reminder mishaps aren't always emergencies and not always a reason to dial 911.

E-Comm said its call-takers received an uptick in calls Sunday for snowstorm-related matters after parts of Metro Vancouver, Vancouver Island and the Okanagan saw up to 20 centimetres of gusting snow in one night.

In Metro Vancouver, dispatchers saw 4,500 calls amid the storm compared to 3,700 calls on an average Sunday. On Vancouver Island, staff handled 10 per cent more calls than usual: 330 compared to 300.

Ben Nelms/CBC

Most calls were, rightfully, for emergencies — but "many" were to report minor fender-benders, ask questions about power outages and check how the roads were looking outside.

None of those questions, a spokesperson said Monday, are considered appropriate for 911.

"We really do need the public to help us help by keeping these lines free," said Jasmine Bradley.

Fender-bender callers

Bradley said "quite a few" of the misplaced calls were about minor motor vehicle crashes.

"In some cases where there were injuries, that's absolutely a 911 call, but if it's a minor fender-bender where there are no serious injuries, the cars are able to be pulled over to the side of the road. There's no danger to the public, and people can exchange information ... That is a call that can just go straight through to your insurance provider," said Bradley.

"A lot of times, people will phone believing they need to have a police file number for these types of fender-benders but unless there is a danger to public safety ... that's not the case."

The spokesperson said callers also phoned 911 on Sunday asking for road reports, information on road closures and updates on whether roads in their neighbourhoods have been cleared, sanded or salted — none of which dispatchers are able to answer.

People who lost power also phoned 911 to ask how soon electricity would be restored.

"That's not information that our call-takers can provide," said Bradley.

Submitted by Flynn Meredith-Black

The rule of thumb for 911 is that the line is for emergencies that require immediate assistance from police, fire or ambulance; where someone's health, safety or property is in danger, or when a caller is witnessing a crime in progress.

A downed power line is also is considered to be an emergency because a live downed line can carry an electric current strong enough to cause serious injury or death. Anyone who sees a downed line in person should stay back 10 metres and phone 911.

"We're just appealing to the public to make sure that they turn to other sources," said Bradley. "We really just want people to understand the importance of keeping these 911 lifelines open for real emergencies."

Much of B.C. is currently in the grips of a bitterly cold winter storm expected to last the rest of the week. Sunday's snowfall caused dozens of crashes, delays or closures on several highways and bridges across the province.

Where to find information in a snowstorm

  • For information on road clearing and salting, check with your local municipality.