I would like to commend the Orcas Island Fire Department/EMS, Emergency Management, Airlift Northwest, Camp Orkila, the volunteers from Deer Harbor and all the others whose combined effort made the recent fire drill in Spring Point an outstanding success.
Fire Chief Kevin O’Brien coordinated the activities of an impressively professional crew. Bob Connor had prepared a field for use as an alternate landing zone for helicopter evacuation. Sheila Gaquin organized Red Cross facilities at the Deer Harbor Inn, the designated emergency center. Altogether a fine example of professionalism, resourcefulness and community effort.
One problem that was readily apparent was with communication. The fire department was able to work around crowded radio frequencies. However, cell phone coverage in Spring Point and other areas on Orcas is all but non-existent. Reception is better through the local Canadian network than with our domestic ones in these dead zones. During the recent wild fires in California we saw numerous examples on the news of vital information being exchanged through Twitter or Facebook. And in our dead spots we cannot even make a 911 call.
OPALCO has reached out to the island community to support an improved broadband through an expanded optical cable network. In my view this would be an outstanding development. However, contrary to rumor, it does not affect coverage for cell phones. The proposed antennas at the end of its lines would only provide Wi-Fi to expand the cable network’s coverage. I am told that these same antennas could also be used to enhance cell phone coverage but one or more of the carriers (AT&T, Verizon, etc.) would have to be convinced of the economic incentive.
I believe it is incumbent on OPALCO, our county council and all our cell phone users to explore and encourage multiple uses of these antennas before the opportunity is lost. Poor reception is not just an inconvenience. As demonstrated in the fire drill, it is an avoidable condition that potentially affects the security of much of our islands.