The fire chief in a rural Manitoba community says his department is scrambling to find an alternate source of communication after a Bell MTS network change led to a loss of cell service.

“Now that they’ve cut off the CDMA in our area, we have absolutely no service,” said Darren Kippen, the chief of the fire department in Fork River, Man., which is about 50 kilometres north of Dauphin.

Kippen said he hasn’t had cell service since the end of March after Bell MTS, which shares a parent company with CTV News, switched over the region’s CDMA service to the latest 4G LTE network.

Kippen said the volunteer firefighters received replacement phones from Bell MTS which were intended to be compatible with the new network, but they can only get cell service if they travel south of the community toward Dauphin.

“Me and a couple of the fire department guys, we activated their phones and nothing,” he said. “It gave us absolutely nothing.”

Fire department concerned about community’s safety

As the fire chief, Kippen said they’ve been put in a “very dangerous” situation, because his department relied on cellphones as a means to receive calls.

“My concerns are: Are we going to get a call? Or how are they going to get ahold of us?” Kippen said.

Before the loss of service, the fire department used a service called Paging Unlimited, which would contact them about 911 calls through four channels: cellphone, text message, email and landline.

Kippen said without cell service the department is more dependent on landlines to find out about emergencies. This presents a problem because it’s a volunteer department and many of the members have jobs in industries such as farming and trucking which keep them away from their home phones. 

“We don’t sit in the house, we’re either in our tractors or trucks. We’re a volunteer fire department, we don’t sit in the fire department and sit and wait for calls,” he said.

FleetNet radios not a viable option

When Kippen reached out to Bell MTS about his concerns, he says it was suggested the department try the two-way radio service FleetNet in order to receive emergency calls. 

But the fire chief said that’s not a feasible option because of the radio’s high price tag. He also notes Bell MTS is currently in the three-year process of replacing the province’s aging FleetNet communication system, so as of now the technology is outdated.

“We’re going backwards in time is what’s happening,” Kippen said.

“They’re trying to get us to use a service that doesn’t really work and they want us to wait for a service that’s going to be another two and a half years coming.”

Bell MTS’ response

A spokesperson for Bell MTS said Fork River was never covered by MTS CDMA and that it’s possible residents had been picking up signals from nearby communities.

“While the Bell MTS LTE network is available in all communities that were covered by the MTS CDMA network, there may be some areas where coverage is slightly different, which is the case in this area,” said Bell MTS’s communications manager Morgan Shipley in an email.

Shipley also said the telecommunications company has been in contact with the fire department to suggest potential solutions to their problem.

“They do currently have access to the FleetNet system used by public safety organizations across Manitoba and will have access to the new Public Safety Radio Network we’re implementing that will provide more reliable, cutting edge network infrastructure for public safety personnel,” the email said.

READ MORE: Farmer left without cell service after Bell MTS network change

Finding a solution

For Kippen, his hope is that the community can get their old service back until Bell MTS finds a proper solution to the current problem.

“Put it back to what it was is what we’re asking for, till they can come up with a service that will work for us in this area,” he said.

“I don’t know why they took it down. It’s covering lots of people. If it’s working just leave it till they’ve got a new one set up that will work in our area is what we’re asking.”