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Premier to probe cell services' failure to provide tornado alerts

Destruction at the home of Jack Furrie, who was killed in the tornado. (Melissa Verge / Brandon Sun)</p>

Destruction at the home of Jack Furrie, who was killed in the tornado. (Melissa Verge / Brandon Sun)

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 6/8/2018 (697 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Premier Brian Pallister vowed to "get to the bottom" of spotty cellphone service in Alonsa, Man., Monday, three days after an alert system failed to adequately warn area residents of the deadly category-4 tornado that ravaged the community and killed a 77-year-old man Friday night.

"I'm going to be inquiring as to what has happened here in terms of the providers and the quality of service," said Pallister, who spent the afternoon in the municipality meeting with officials and residents.

"There could have been absolute devastation here in terms of human loss of life, and that isn't the case today," Premier Brian Pallister said Monday. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)</p>

"There could have been absolute devastation here in terms of human loss of life, and that isn't the case today," Premier Brian Pallister said Monday. (Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press files)

"I think that's the question that local people want addressed. They're not looking at blaming, I don't think. They're frankly very pleased that they're alive."

Over the weekend, dozens of Alonsa residents told the Free Press that they were unprepared for the category-4 tornado, which blasted winds of 280 km/h, tore homes and cottages entirely off the ground, caused significant damage to hydro infrastructure, and tossed vehicles in the air.

With poor cell reception in the surrounding area, many people hadn't a clue a storm was on its way until they spotted the tornado and felt the intense winds. A text-message-based alert system sent warnings to some residents, but others didn't receive one until they were already fleeing.

According to a Bell MTS spokesperson, the public alerts on any cellphone service provider's phones equipped with LTE wireless technology can only be received if those phones are connected to an LTE network. 

Much of the area surrounding Alonsa is serviced by networks which predate that technology, meaning public alert technology is ineffective or doesn't function at all, the spokesperson said.

Representatives with Rogers and Bell MTS both told the Free Press they are working to address service issues, while Telus didn't respond to a request for comment.

'Premature' to consider incentives to improve service: premier

Association of Manitoba Municipalities executive director Joe Masi says service providers treat coverage in rural communities as a business case, and urged the province to work with those providers to improve cell service.

When asked whether the province would provide an incentive to carriers to improve coverage in the area in the tornado's aftermath, Pallister said it was too early for such a move to be considered.

Shawn Gurke, a resident of Alonsa, watches a truck floating in Lake Manitoba after a tornado hit on Friday. (Melissa Verge / Brandon Sun)</p>

Shawn Gurke, a resident of Alonsa, watches a truck floating in Lake Manitoba after a tornado hit on Friday. (Melissa Verge / Brandon Sun)

"I think that's a premature suggestion," he said. "We're continuing to do what we can to work with private providers to encourage that to happen, and there have been some improvements. Obviously here's one [case] where it went backwards. We'll find out why later in the week, I expect."

"I'm trying to look on the bright side, because I know that's exactly what people we've been talking to are doing as well." –Premier Brian Pallister

Masi said the association was pleased with Pallister's response, and urges the government to continue to increase rural cell service.

Pallister said he didn't meet with the immediate family of Jack Furrie, the retired teacher killed by the tornado, to respect their request for privacy. He said he was shocked after speaking with residents and seeing the damage the tornado wrought, adding that his government will continue to work with the municipality during its recovery.

Pallister acknowledged the situation could have easily been much worse.

"There could have been absolute devastation here in terms of human loss of life, and that isn't the case today," he told the Free Press. "I guess I'm trying to look on the bright side, because I know that's exactly what people we've been talking to are doing as well."

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca  Twitter: @benjwaldman

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
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Updated on Monday, August 6, 2018 at 7:07 PM CDT: Removes misbehaving slideshow.

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