If you're heading out to the West Country have a plan in case things go wrong, says Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Services fire chief Steve Debienne.
(Photo from CRFRS Facebook)

West Country visitors should have an emergency plan: regional fire chief

Cellphones can’t be relied on in many back country areas

Last summer, a quad crashed in a remote area 50 km north of Nordegg.

Clearwater Regional Fire Rescue Services got the call and firefighters were on their way in minutes.

“Within about five minutes of us getting the 911 call we started getting Facebook messages about where are you guys? You’re taking too long to get here,” said regional fire chief Steve Debienne. “It’s just a challenge.”

Clearwater’s paid on-call firefighters respond to every emergency call as if it’s life or death, but there is no getting around distance and geography.

“If you’re 45 minutes from Nordegg it’s going to take emergency responders at least 45 minutes to get to you,” he said.

The West Country has proven more popular than ever since the pandemic hit, drawing newcomers who may have had other travel plans normally.

Debienne expects this season to be just as busy.

“We’re already starting to see the increase begin this year,” he said. “Just looking at everything I think it’s going to be very close to a repeat of last year.”

Debienne knows that among the stream of backcountry visitors will be a fair share of newbies with faulty expectations of what to expect if they get into trouble.

“You get people coming out from the city and maybe haven’t been out to the back country before. They go out there and they figure they call 911 and the helicopter comes flying in and the rescuers jump out of it.

“That’s not the reality.”

He has a simple message for everyone thinking of exploring the wilderness — have a plan.

“Know where you are and understand if you are out in the West Country the further you go back into the West Country the further you are away from emergency services.

“Be aware and have an alternate means of contacting emergency services if required and be cognizant that in our West Country there are a lot of places without cell service.

“Those are two things we ran into last year, people were unaware and unprepared because they didn’t think that there would be no cell service.”

There are a number of devices on the market, such as Garmin inReach and Spot X, that use satellite links for messaging when out of cellphone range.

Another sign that some visitors were rookies was an increase in camper rollovers.

Debienne put it down to first-time and inexperienced camper owners not used to the challenges of hauling a mini home behind them or perhaps people hauling a bigger camper than they were used to.

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