Labrador braces for deluge of 911 satellite phone calls

A pilot program that loans satellite phones to motorists on one of Labrador’s most isolated highways is now entering its most treacherous phase.

The second leg of the year-long pilot stretches over the winter months, a time when the mercury dips to -60 degrees C and some motorists inevitably

confront life-and-death situations on the Trans-Labrador Highway.

The 568 km stretch of dirt road snakes its way through pristine wilderness, unmarked by telephone poles, cellular towers, wires or any type of power source.

“”There’s just nothing there,”” said Insp. Robert Garland of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary in west Labrador.

To ensure distressed motorists receive help faster, the province began a satellite-phone program about six months ago. Motorists who travel this stretch of road now receive loaner phones. The province bought 60 satellite phone sets at $900 each to be used for the duration of the pilot.

So far, everything has gone off without a hitch, except for one isolated case, said Garland.

Recently, Leo Herrell and his wife, Bernice, were in the middle of a six-hour journey from Goose Bay to Labrador City when they hit a snowed-out portion of road. Their Dodge pickup slid off the road and ended up overturned in the ditch. When the elderly couple called 911, an automated voice told them to “”Please hold.”” They tried again, but the same thing happened.

Luckily, they were rescued by a passing car after waiting about 15 minutes. But it could have been worse. Traffic on the route is so sparse that stranded motorists could face a wait of hours, even days.

“”We’re still reviewing that (case),”” said Garland. “”It happened a number of weeks ago and we’re still trying to figure out what went wrong.””

In the meantime, the Royal Constabulary expects the volume of calls for service to increase over the winter months, “”based on the fact that we have a highway through wilderness area and the winter temperatures here drop to as low as — 55 or — 60 C.”” said Garland.

He added that there is some traffic in the winter months due to snowmobile riders and caribou hunters, but not as many tourists.

For the Labrador police, the program has sped up the rescue process significantly, said Garland. “”Previously, if motorists had problems on the road, if there was a serious accident for example, we would have to wait for another motorist to come along.””

For that motorist to then drive to a phone could take several hours because a booth could be as far away as 300 km.

The cost of providing satellite phones was compared to the price of installing cellular service along the road, but the latter was “”very cost-prohibitive,”” said Garland.

Also considered was the installation of payphones along the side of the road, which proved equally impractical because this could not be done without installing some kind of power source, whether that be a brand-new telephone-pole system or a solar-powered generator for each phone booth.

“”And that still wouldn’t solve your problem because how far apart do you set them up on the road? Every 30 kilometres?”” asked Garland. “”Well if you have to walk 30 kilometres in -60 degree C weather, you’re really in trouble.””

The pilot project wraps up in six months at which point a decision will be made to purchase more phones based on call volumes and number of users.

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