A Lacombe woman called 911 about a flaming vehicle on Hwy 2 and was twice put on hold by emergency dispatchers who seemed unfamiliar with the locations of Ponoka and Wetaskiwin.
Krysta Fornataro said she spent three or four minutes on the 911 line without getting through to police, fire or ambulance.
After the “horrible experience,” she now worries about what could happen if an emergency ever befell her family.
Fornataro recounted driving her husband to Edmonton airport on Monday at about 6 p.m. when she spotted flames and thick black smoke billowing out of a truck parked on the shoulder of Hwy 2.
“It was fully engulfed,” she recalled, with no sign that any people had gotten out of the vehicle.
Fornataro immediately called 911. She said she heard three or four rings and then a “click” so that she had to check her phone screen to ensure she wasn’t disconnected.
After a pause, a dispatcher came on the line to ask, “What town or city are you from?” She repeated this same question in French.
After Fornataro explained about the burning vehicle beside the highway, the dispatcher said “just a minute” and put her on brief hold.
When the dispatcher came back on line, she again asked Fornataro “which town or city?” in English and French.
“I said, ‘It’s not a city or a town. I’m on the highway between Ponoka and Wetaskiwin,’” said Fornataro.
From the dispatcher’s confused response, she felt the dispatcher was completely unfamiliar with these communities: “She asked me again, ‘Is that a city or a town?’ …It didn’t even sound like she was from Alberta…”
Fornataro was then put on hold for a “solid minute” before hearing another ‘click’.” She again wondered if she was disconnected before another woman came on, identifying herself as a Telus operator.
“I was again asked, ‘What city or town are you calling from?’”
Just as Fornataro began her spiel about how she was calling from a highway, she saw an emergency vehicle heading up Hwy 2 towards the smoking car — and was relieved that someone else had apparently called for help.
Ponoka Freeway patrol confirmed that no one was hurt in this incident.
But Fornataro is left with many questions and concerns about how her 911 call was handled. She believes it did not go as smoothly or efficiently as if the 911 dispatcher was working out of central Alberta and familiar with the area.
Fornataro wonders why the dispatcher repeated several questions to her in French when it was clear after their first exchange that she was an English speaker. She also questions why a Telus operator was involved in an emergency call?
A person might easily have hung up after the “clicks,” believing the call had been disconnected, said Fornataro.
It was clear Thursday that this situation is not related to the centralization of the last remaining localized dispatch centres in Alberta.
In January, the provincial government switched all of central Alberta’s 911 calls over to a centralized dispatch system that is handled outside of this region to save money. Red Deer’s ambulance dispatch centre was closed.
Fornataro believes someone could have died in the three to four minutes that she spent repeatedly answering questions or being put on hold during her recent 911 call.
Noting that several other Albertans have posted their 911 concerns on Facebook, Fornataro believes this is not a one-of problem.
Fornataro said she intends to write to her MLA Ron Orr to complain about the new centralized dispatching system, and she encourages other area residents to also press the government for a return to local dispatching.
This article was updated on July 22. A previous version of this news story stated Alberta Health was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday, Alberta Health confirmed it did not have anything to do with Fornataro’s 911 problem because the call was cut off before any ambulance involvement. It was also confirmed that this particular call is not linked to the centralization of local dispatch centres.