Yukon News

Phones fail across territory

Jacqueline Ronson Friday September 21, 2012

Mike Thomas/Yukon News

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NorthwesTel says it is investigating the cause of the total communications blackout the territory suffered after a power failure in Whitehorse on Wednesday night.

Emergency service providers scrambled to coordinate after a NorthwesTel equipment failure caused the loss of 911, landline, cellphone and internet services across the territory Thursday morning.

“We haven’t seen an outage of this scope in the Yukon before,” said Emily Younker, the corporate communications manager for NorthwesTel.

The trouble started some time before midnight when a tree fell on a major transmission line near McIntyre Creek, causing a widespread blackout across Whitehorse.

In cases of power outages, the NorthwesTel system is designed to effortlessly move to battery and then diesel power. This happens dozens of times a year with out interrupting telecommunication services, said Curtis Shaw, NorthwesTel’s vice president of marketing.

However, something went wrong with the equipment that allows the system to move between power sources, said Younker.

At around 4 a.m., services knocked out across the territory.

“It’s kind of a special situation, a bit of a perfect storm, because as the phones were out, typically we’d be calling, sending alarms to our technicians to come in and start working on it immediately,” said Younker.

“In this case, it was mostly knocking on doors to get the correct team together to come in and find out first what the problem is, and then how to fix it.”

Meanwhile, Yukoners were slowly waking up to the realization that they could not call for help if they needed it.

Emergency plans were enacted at both the city and territorial level.

The fire department knocked on doors to bring in extra staff and put a truck with lights flashing outside the fire hall as a beacon for anyone in need.

Mike Thomas/Yukon News

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Representatives from the various emergency services departments and NorthwesTel held a press conference on Thursday to discuss the communications failure.

Emergency Medical Services set up satellite stations at the Canada Games Centre and in the old Canadian Tire parking lot to be available to respond to emergencies.

The city’s public works crews checked the water and sewage systems, because their automatic alarm systems depend on landlines.

Government departments communicated with each other over handheld radios and satellite phones.

The Yukon Amateur Radio Association helped establish an early communication network.

“By 5 o’clock we had chatter on our radio throughout the system,” said Terry Maher, the association’s president.

And the territory’s major radio stations: CBC, CHON and CKRW played an important role in keeping citizens informed about how to access emergency services if the need arose.

NorthwesTel’s technicians were able to restore power to their systems some time between 8:30 and 9 a.m.

They then began to reset the systems one at a time, with a focus on emergency services.

Some landline and wireless services came back online around 9 a.m. By 11, cellphones were back up and all but about 600 landlines scattered throughout the Whitehorse area were working.

RCMP, fire officials, EMS and the hospital reported no major incidents during the time when communications were down.

The hospital did need to summon a particular doctor in the early hours of the morning, and RCMP and EMS assisted by going to that doctor’s house to deliver the message.

Some Whitehorse businesses operated on a cash-only basis while debit and credit machines were down, while others closed altogether.

The Java Connection issued IOUs to cash-strapped customers eager for their morning caffeine fix.

By the late afternoon, some residents were still without internet service.

Younker explained that two teams of technicians worked to ensure all service was restored.

“Now we’ve got to start the investigation. What exactly went wrong, what equipment failed, why it failed and how we can prevent that from ever happening again,” said Younker.

Elaine Taylor, minister of community services, said all of the first responders did an excellent job of coming together.

“Given the circumstances, I think that everyone has done their very best.”

She reminded Yukoners of the 72-hour rule: everyone should be prepared to sustain themselves for at least three days in the event of an extended power outage or other emergency, such as this one.

“This type of event very much reminds us of the importance of emergency preparedness.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

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9 Comments

john wrote:
1:59pm Friday October 5, 2012

What about an alarm management system…like every other telco has? What about disaster recovery? business continuity?

or in other words a professional and integer business?

flyingfur wrote:
5:58pm Monday September 24, 2012

A minor inconvenience.  Actually we should make it a weekly thing to shut down the telephone, cell, and internet just to give us all some peace and quiet!  I thought all of our various emergency services did a fantastic job and CBC radio too…especially Sandy in the morning.

extech wrote:
4:32pm Sunday September 23, 2012

A classic example of all your eggs in one basket.  There were a few places where local dial tone was still available…Tagish for example. This is because Tagish has an older type stand alone type telephone exchange….most other communities are remote exchanges off of the whitehorse switch. This means when the crap hits the fan the telephone exchange in Tagish simply loses long distance capability but retains local calling….so while most everyone in Whitehorse was saying WTF to no one in general….folks in Tagish were calling one another asking if the internet was down or why the cell service was gone.

With technology leaning more and more towards IP based systems there is a commonality among all the systems (cell, landline, atm, pos, internet)....this commonality allows for the possibility of losing ALL the systems given the right circumstances. Look at all the systems involved….seemingly separate entities all taken down at the same time by the same cause.

The only way around this is to design the various systems with hot standby redundancy of an isolated nature INCLUDING power systems.

Consider this a snapshot of where technology is headed….and consider those who may one day harbour ill will towards many and consider if those same have the capability to negatively affect the commonality in today’s “essential” services….hmmmm….“all our routers have the same structure and are ultimately vulnerable to natural or intentional sources”.  Consider….

Ontario_guy wrote:
4:24am Sunday September 23, 2012

Actually, Samurai, I lived in Toronto during the 2003 blackout, and was driving through rush-hour traffic when it all started to happen.  Despite the immense difference in terms of potential accidents, sheer traffic volume, gas stations not being able to dispense gas - city essentially coming to a standstill - I would rate what happened on Thursday morning as more (potentially) disastrous.  You see, in Toronto, I was able to pull over my car, walk to the nearest payphone and call my employer, family, even 911 if I had needed to.  Sure, my cell phone was out, but good old landlines held up, and I am sure that many lives were saved by that communications backbone.

Did you hear the lady interviewed on the CBC about her medic alert device and how it could not get out the message for help if it had needed to? (I’m not sure how the device works, but suffice to say one could have picked up a landline and dialled 911 had that redundant system kept up.

Had a person genuinely been in need on Thursday morning and had not been able to call for help, the lawsuit against NorthwesTel would have been unimaginable in scope…

Samurai_1974 wrote:
5:18pm Saturday September 22, 2012

I think it’s funny when people lose their minds over a 5-hour or even 12-hour outage.  News flash: You live in the Yukon.  You likely chose living here *because of* the wilderness factor, and the romance of living in a place where you can brag to your friends down south about how we are, historically, people who are known for a tenacity of overcoming hardships.

Now imagine living in Ontario when that 3-day power blackout happened in 2003.  *That* was an emergency.

Mike Grieco wrote:
5:04am Saturday September 22, 2012

WYATT!!!, You are too funny - as your cartoon on this communication break-down is hi-lair-ee-uhs. Thanks!

Richard L wrote:
12:22am Saturday September 22, 2012

NorthwesTel.

Bringing you yesterday’s technology tomorrow.

Riptide wrote:
9:39pm Friday September 21, 2012

Cell service was restored in every community by 2pm PST. Prepaid was down until 5pm PST.

import wrote:
8:37pm Friday September 21, 2012

“By 11, cellphones were back up and all but about 600 landlines scattered throughout the Whitehorse area were working.”

Not in the communities. Cell phones were out until early evening. Same with internet.

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