REGINA — The Saskatchewan government is trying to reassure people that the province’s 911 system works after a woman and two children were stranded in their car for a week despite phoning for help.
Another young woman who had been in the car died from exposure after walking 60 kilometres in an effort to find assistance.
Saskatchewan Public Safety Minister Yogi Huyghebaert offered the government’s condolences on the death of Kerri Canepotatoe, 18, saying it was “a very tragic incident.”
But despite criticism from Canepotatoe’s relatives, the minister insisted the 911 system is effective.
“I think the system is a very good system. In this case, something has transpired and we’re looking into it.”
The province has appointed an independent observer from the Saskatoon police to oversee an RCMP investigation of the events that started April 8.
Canepotatoe, her cousin Melissa Rabbitskin and Rabbitskin’s two young children were travelling from Prince Albert to Loon Lake, west of Meadow Lake near the Alberta boundary, when they got lost and made a wrong turn. Their car got bogged down in mud and water on a logging road near Big River.
RCMP have said the stranded travellers tried calling 911 three times, but only got through once to a call centre in Prince Albert. Huyghebaert said the 911 operator who took the call handled it properly by transferring to the RCMP where it was answered by a civilian dispatcher in Regina.
Saskatchewan fire commissioner Duane McKay, who oversees the 911 system, said it “does not make very many errors.” McKay said the system is simplistic in that an operator only needs a little information before transferring calls to police, fire or ambulance services, who will then send out the appropriate personnel.
“If you dial 911, somebody will answer your call and transfer you to the agency that you need in order to respond to assist you,” said McKay.
“When there are incidents like this, people will always question whether the system is functioning properly and I would encourage everybody to understand the 911 system functions very well in this province, covers a vast area and to have confidence it.”
What’s not yet clear is how the RCMP dispatcher handled the call.
RCMP confirm that someone from the car asked for a tow truck before the call was lost. They can’t say if a tow truck was ever sent. The dispatcher determined that it wasn’t necessary to send a Mountie and no follow-up calls were made because it wasn’t considered an emergency.
RCMP Chief Supt. Randy Beck admitted to radio station CKOM that the dispatch system is not fool-proof.
“The operator made his judgment that it was not a call that police attendance was required, and that was based on the information provided by the caller,” said Beck.
“Efforts were made by the dispatcher to connect to a tow-truck company. That was unsuccessful and then a subsequent call came in to the operations centre that diverted (his) attention, and the evening went on as normal.”
Relatives have said Canepotatoe walked 60 kilometres through boot-sucking mud before collapsing on the side of the road and dying of exposure. Her funeral was held Monday on the Ministikwan First Nation, also known as the Island Lake First Nation.
It wasn’t until Canepotatoe’s body was found that a search was launched for Rabbitskin and her children, who spent a week shivering in their stranded car. Relatives say the three wouldn’t have been found if Canepotatoe hadn’t made her trek.
Beck said a search wasn’t launched earlier because RCMP had not received any missing persons reports from the area.
“But when a mistake like this is made and a tragic event is the end result, it’s horrifying to the operators that work inside of our operations and communications centre,” he said.
The dispatcher involved in the incident is still working.
Huyghebaert said the review will look at what went wrong and if protocols need to change.
“If there’s a recommendation that comes out that can help the system whether it’s in 911 dispatch or RCMP dispatch, we take this very, very serious. Any way that we can look at improving the system, we definitely want to,” said Huyghebaert.