Dead zone: RDKS asks province for signage on Hwy 37

Director says many travellers are unaware and unprepared for emergencies

The Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine (RDKS) is requesting the province put up signage informing drivers that Highway 37 does not have cellular service.

At a regular board meeting in May, RDKS director Tina Etzerza made the recommendation that the district send a letter to the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (MOTI) to put up a no cell service sign at the Gitanyow turnoff for those travelling north until Dease Lake, with the exception of Stewart. In light of the high profile murders in northern B.C. recently, the issue has resurfaced again with urgency.

READ MORE: Isolated Tahltan village reeling from northern B.C. homicides

“It’s been an issue for years that we don’t have cell service and the fact is, there’s a lot of traffic on this highway in the summertime and in the wintertime, it’s really desolate so that’s another problem,” says Etzerza, who lives in Dease Lake. “Most would expect that at some point, your cell service will work and it’s dangerous when you break down on the side of the road.”

Etzerza says action is needed more than ever as many visitors travelling on the highway are unaware they will be disconnected for a long period of time — which can be a potential risk if they are unprepared and require help.

However MOTI says it does not post signage about the availability or reliability of cellular service.

“On rural and remote highways in B.C. outside of community centres, it is generally understood and expected by travellers that cell service is not reliable,” says a spokesperson in an email. “Cellular service depends on a person’s distance from their provider’s cellular tower, any terrain in the way, weather, even the number of other users on that particular network at the same time.”

Throughout the 465 km stretch to Dease Lake with no cell service (and then another 650 km to reach Whitehorse, Yukon), the only way to connect is using landlines available at businesses along the highway. Some places rely entirely on Wi-Fi to make calls, but that can come at a high cost to owners and not always readily available for drivers.

“Just because there’s a business on the side of the road, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gonna let you use their phone,” Etzerza says. “[Your phone only connects] to Wi-Fi here… and our Wi-Fi is very expensive compared to other communities… you have a data limit that you pay for so you can’t just go use somebody’s because we’re very, very cognizant of our data.”

For locals in the area that often travel Hwy 37, she says it’s normal to notify family or friends of their expected time of arrival in case anything happens along the way. They also know that if their car breaks down or another emergency occurs, they have to depend on passing drivers for assistance.

READ MORE: ‘Struggling to understand’: Family, UBC pay tribute to lecturer killed in northern B.C.

Many travellers rely solely on their phones and if it’s their first time travelling in a rural region, they might be hesitant to flag somebody down. Etzerza says there have been incidents where drivers have stayed in their vehicles for hours on the side of the road, not knowing the next steps.

“If you need a tow truck, you could be waiting hours and I don’t mean like one or two, I mean like eight hours. That’s a long time sitting on the side of the road and tragedy has happened,” Etzerza says.

She adds there are a few phone booths sparsely scattered along the highway, but some younger generations may not carry change to use them or even know how to operate one nowadays. She recognizes it’s a difficult task to convince cellular service providers to make the investment into a remote area, but notifying drivers with signage might help them more diligent and plan ahead.

As fear has taken hold in her area from the recent murders, Etzerza says residents are now hesitant to pull over to help and that it will take some time for trust to be regained toward strangers. She says people are even scared to stop at a rest area if another vehicle is parked.

“Everyone all over the world is well aware of what’s happening here and it’s made our people here much more aware of how careful we need to be, so it’s not going to be that easy, that people are just going to stop and get out and help you now,” she says. “We have elderly people who travel down to Terrace for appointments… mothers [alone] with their children because the men are in camp, and that’s a scary thought that anything could happen.”

Amy Bolton, a manager at Red Goat Lodge near Iskut and approximately a 20-minute drive from where the burning vehicle found on July 19, says the news of the homicides made an impact on her family and business. Guests, who originally intended to use their campsites, were opting for rooms instead as talk of a “serial killer” in the area was a plausible reality during the initial investigation.

At the lodge, she says they were on high alert and taking down names of every visitor. They tried to provide up to date information to everybody, surprised by the number of travellers unaware of the situation Anyone stopping by was viewed with suspicion, which was a first for her relaxed family business.

“We were here in the woods, wondering if the killers are hiking through because it wouldn’t take long for them to get here… it was a really creepy feeling,” says Bolton, who also grew up in the area. “[And guests] were a bit freaked out, especially because they were out of touch with everything for the last few days.”

Bolton says having no service in the area makes everybody extremely vulnerable as it doesn’t keep people updated of dangers, and believes crimes would be reported sooner if cellular calls were immediately available as opposed to having to drive elsewhere to call police.

“I think if there was cell service, I think the [vehicle] fire would have been reported way earlier because it’s another 40 minutes to Dease Lake, for people to contact the right people,” she says.

She suggests there should be public spots available along the highway with Wi-Fi or cellular points that drivers can use. Since the incident, she’s been cautious when driving on her own or with her family to avoid interactions with anyone else on the road.

Etzerza says it might be a long time before hotspots will be considered, but still believes having signage will make a difference.

The RDKS has submitted their letter to MOTI and is currently waiting for a response. They don’t have permission themselves to post signage on the highways as MOTI wants to keep “distractions” at a minimum.

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