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New emergency comms system put to test during wildfire

Fort McMurray, AB, Canada / MIX 103.7
New emergency comms system put to test during wildfire

Brad Grainger speaks to the effectiveness of AFRRCS on June 23, 2016 // alberta.ca/news.cfm

The Alberta Government is rolling out a new emergency communications system that proved its worth during the Fort McMurray wildfire.

The Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System (AFRRCS) is a system that allows all RCMP, fire, and EMS departments in the province to communicate with each other across jurisdictions when the need arises. Most current radio systems are standalones that don’t have the capability to contact another department.

The system came in handy for Regional Emergency Services here at home on May 3. Deputy Fire Chief Brad Grainger told reporters Thursday that when the wildfire bore down on Fort McMurray, their communications towers were “heavily damaged,” taking out radio contact with front-line responders.

That’s when the government mobilized the AFRRCS system, which arrived within two hours of the communication failure.

“With AFRRCS, we simply wouldn’t have been able to communicate effectively,” Grainger said. “Meaning 90,000 of my neighbours, friends, and colleagues wouldn’t have been able to have been successfully evacuated.”

He said the system allowed them to keep constant contact with the 32 fire departments that flocked to the RMWB to help battle the blaze.

It also helped out when the municipality’s 9-1-1 operations centre went down.

“It also had to be evacuated,” Grainger said. “It was AFRRCS that allowed us to use our portable communication, and literally took 9-1-1 calls in the back of an emergency vehicle as we traveled down the highway. It was truly remarkable.”

The system comes with a province-wide price tag of $438 million, but it’s being provided free-of-charge to emergency departments across the province. It is an opt-in system, with R.E.S. and RCMP in the RMWB both set to utilize the technology.

Note: Grainger added that in-between the communications failure and AFRRCS arrival, front-line firefighters maintained contact with REOC through the use of cell phones that are placed in each emergency vehicle.

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