As Shanna Little and her family watched their North Kamloops home burn on Saturday morning, there was a critical failure in the emergency response system that has been a lifeline across North America for the past 40 years.
Little and neighbours, frantically calling for help, were unable to get through to 911 dispatch — dispatchers at the operational communications centre in Kelowna — for a tense 10 minutes.
Authorities with the City of Kamloops, the RCMP, Telus and the regional district that oversees the service were investigating on Monday what went wrong. No conclusions were reached, but officials believe that the problem was an isolated technical one.
"Hopefully it's a one-off situation, a very unfortunate glitch in the system," said Mayor Peter Milobar. "I think we need to make sure it's approached, dealt with, investigated thoroughly and made sure it doesn't happen again."
Fire Chief Neill Moroz said emergency calls on the fire did get through eventually, but not directly to Firehall No. 1 as first reported.
"I don't know what happened, but there is nothing to indicate there is a problem with 911," Moroz said.
Moroz said a preliminary investigation shows that there was no system overload at the operational communication centre (OCC). At no time were all the lines occupied.
After the first calls failed to connect, a total of 19 calls about the house fire went through to 911. Four of those calls were dropped, meaning that the callers hung up before they were answered. Dispatchers must still phone callers back to ensure there is no emergency left unanswered.
The other 15 calls got through to OCC, which responded in four seconds. It took another 11 seconds to transfer the call to Firehall No. 1.
"We see no problem at OCC and at Firehall No. 1," Moroz said. "The last piece of the puzzle is Telus — their equipment or their lines — and that hasn't been answered yet."
Claudia Kuhrt, assistant manager of the 911 operations centre in Kelowna, said she was well aware of public concerns about the familiarity dispatch operators have with local streets and geography. Familiarity was not at issue in this case.
"This is isolated," she said.
"The call was put through to Kamloops fire dispatch," she said. "We oversee 911. The minute someone says "fire," it goes to fire dispatch," Kuhrt said, indicating that there was no delay at the Kelowna end.
Cary Berger, police services manager with Central Okanagan Regional District, which oversees regional 911 service, said the matter remains under investigation and would not elaborate.
"This is an unusual circumstance," Berger said.
"It's that circumstance we need to know about," said David Duckworth, City director of corporate services and public safety. Public confidence in the integrity of the system is critical, he agreed.
"At this point, what I do know is that we're doing our own investigation."
There is no question about Kamloops Fire and Rescue's response once notified of the blaze. They arrived at the fire in four minutes, four seconds, "under our professed response time," Moroz noted.
Moroz said he cannot speak to a more general concern of the Kelowna dispatchers' familiarity with local streets and place names.
"We have no issues, really," with the service, he said. "We can't know every single street, every single area in our emergency response region. It's just impossible," he added.
The operations centre in Kelowna provides service to 29 communities in the southeast district, which encompasses the southeast corner of the province. The service was centralized in Kelowna six years ago for cost-saving reasons in a move that raised concerns then about possible delays in response times.
Milobar said there were some initial issues, but he doesn't believe the geographical separation between caller and dispatch is at issue in this instance.
"Certainly in the last few years, we haven't had the issues we had when there was the changeover."
Coun. Marg Spina wasn't on city council when the dispatch service was closed here and centralized in Kelowna in 2004, but she does recall the questions that arose in Kamloops at the time.
"There were concerns about the response to crimes, the response to 911. This is a good example of when things do fall through the cracks. Fortunately they were able to save their own lives."
Spina is sure the issue will be on the table when City council meets this week.
"We are a growing city. Two-and-a-half hours away, is that reasonable? There may be times when centralization is not reasonable."
Technology is not infallible, a fact that should encourage people to keep handy local emergency numbers as backup in the event that 911 doesn't work, said Coun. Tina Lange.
"It must have felt terrible for those people," she said.
Lange recalled calling 911 when she used to manage the Plaza Heritage Hotel. A customer was causing problems at the beer and wine store and she needed police help at "the Plaza," she told the dispatcher.
"I'd forgotten I'd phoned Kelowna, and the Plaza, of course, that means nothing. But we could have a local service that would be no more helpful.
"Whether or not the service is in Kamloops or Kelowna, I really don't think it makes a difference," she said.
Little was reached on Monday at the Barnhartvale home of close friends, where she, her husband and six children are staying temporarily. She said the kids are doing well, though she feels overwhelmed.
Fire investigator Dan Funk and B.C. Safety Authority were still sifting through debris on Monday afternoon to determine the cause of the fire, but had not reached any conclusions.
"Electrical is looking like it's at the top of the list," Funk said.
Some of the electrical evidence has been sent to a Vancouver lab for testing, he added.