It's a communication breakdown that some rural emergency workers fear could cost lives.
Issues about cost, interoperability and poor reception have some first responders in rural areas concerned about the Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System (AFRRCS), the province's new $370 million radio network, saying lives of both patients and emergency works are being put at risk by spotty coverage.
"The biggest thing are the dead zones," said one west-central Alberta paramedic, speaking to Postmedia on condition of anonymity. "As soon as you leave town, there's tons of points on the highway where we have no radio contact."
Based in a relatively secluded rural community, emergency crews in the town are required to cover a vast area — not only responding to calls for service, but also transporting patients between hospitals several hours distant.
Prior to moving to AFRRCS, paramedics in the town shared a radio channel and dispatchers with the local fire department, a common arrangement in many towns.
Since migrating to the new system, paramedics are forbidden from carrying their old radios — a move many first responders say takes away levels of interoperability that AFRRCS was designed to address.
"We could have service all the way down the highway," the paramedic said, who described their radios losing coverage inside the town's senior's home, as well as inside a nearby correctional facility.
With its first users joining the system last summer, AFRRCS promises to unify public safety two-way radio services across the province by integrating communications between agencies and reducing the cost burden for modern communications infrastructure for communities.
However, many emergency services have balked at the cost needed to take part in the program.
While the province pays costs associated with building out and maintaining the system, it's up to individual municipalities to buy the top-of-the-line, digital two-way hardware the system requires.
A list of AFRRCS-approved radios on an Alberta Government website provides numerous portable and mobile options from six vendors.
Motorola radios — a common sight on the belts of first responders across North America — rank among the most expensive, ranging from $4,000 to nearly $9,000 per unit.
On the lower end of the scale are those produced by Kenwood and RELM, which retail between $1,200 and $2,500 each.
Rob Evans, fire chief of Redwood Meadows Emergency Services (RMES) southwest of Calgary, said provincial infrastructure grants will only allow his department to replace seven of his department's 40 portable radios.
"These radios are expensive, especially for a small volunteer department," he said.
"Even at $2,000 a pop, for us that's $80,000. That's the big hurdle for us."
Unlike conventional single-channel two-way radios, AFRRCS is a province-wide network of over 400 linked digital radio systems that relies on networked computers to allocate available frequencies to users — similar to smaller-scale systems used for years by city police departments across Canada.
In 2011, the province announced Melbourne, Fla.-based communications firm Harris Corp. had won the contract to build and commission the system — with a coverage area of over 661,000 sq.-km., AFRRCS will be of the largest such networks in North America.
Harris-built systems have been plagued with reports of problems similar to those described by Alberta first responders, prompting some agencies to scale back or even abandon multi-million dollar radio networks.
A statement provided to Postmedia by Alberta Health Services said communications issues were indeed identified during system rollout, but maintains coverage was "better than expected" and have not identified any patient or responder safety issues.