Control room fire dispatcher Scott Kobus during wind storms on Dec. 20. Photo courtesy Campbell River Fire Department

Toppled power lines trap residents during record-breaking day for Island emergency dispatcher

Wind storm generated roughly 500 emergency calls, mostly from central Island locations

Intense winds led to record-breaking call volumes for fire dispatchers on Thursday, as toppled hydro lines trapped residents in their homes and falling trees blocked roads and destroyed property.

That’s according to Stephanie Bremer, who manages the fire dispatch centre in Campbell River. The centre handles emergency calls for 61 fire departments, most of them on Vancouver Island.

By the time Bremer finished work at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, the dispatch centre had received nearly 500 calls, mostly from the central Island, she said.

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To put that in perspective, the dispatch centre processes about 12,000 files per year. If Thursday’s calls were the norm, that number would be closer to 180,000, she said.

“That was a significant amount of calls for our centre,” said Bremer. “(Thursday) was actually the busiest day that we’ve ever had in the history of our dispatch centre.”

The centre, which was established in 1995, fields calls for 50 fire departments on northern and central Vancouver Island and 11 in northeastern B.C.

Most of those calls came from central Island locations including Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanoose Bay and Port Alberni, Bremer said.

As high winds caused power lines to fall under the weight of trees, many people were trapped inside their homes, she said.

“They were feeling that they weren’t actually able to safely leave their residence,” she said. “A lot of these hydro lines were actually still live.”

Falling trees also blocked roads, smashed into homes, broke windows and damaged vehicles, she said.

Roads were snarled with “lots of people feeling that it was unsafe to drive anywhere because of trees blocking their way,” she said.

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The wild weather led to motor vehicle accidents, and there were four structure fires potentially caused by fallen power lines, Bremer said.

“We had a few instances where hydro poles were actually snapped,” Bremer added. “Hydro poles were coming down (and) transformers were coming down, creating very unsafe situations.”

Up to six dispatchers were on duty, compared to the usual two-person contingent, she said. Thursday’s influx of calls prompted the centre to activate its backup centre, which is normally reserved in case the main centre is evacuated.

On Friday, the centre was still receiving reports of people waking up or coming home to damaged power lines and fallen trees, but overall the situation had calmed considerably, she said.

She said yesterday’s effort was a good opportunity to test the resources of the dispatch centre, and a great example of teamwork by emergency personnel.

She noted that fire department dispatchers worked closely with partners including other emergency responders and BC Hydro.

READ MORE: Man rescued after B.C. city’s pier breaks up in wind storm


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