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Man’s death underlines need for better cell coverage in Nanaimo

Widow lives with not knowing whether getting through to 911 could have saved her husband’s life
Kathy Gillies is fighting for better cellular phone coverage after being unable to communicate with a 911 dispatcher from Hammond Bay the night her husband Ken suffered a heart attack and died before help could arrive. (Chris Bush/News Bulletin)

A woman in Nanaimo hopes no one will have to experience what she went through the night she couldn’t reach a 911 dispatcher on her cellphone.

Kathy Gillies and her husband Ken were driving to Nanaimo Regional General Hospital in July after he’d been feeling ill for several hours.

“We were ready for bed and we got dressed again and I said, ‘we have to go to the hospital,’” Gillies said.

Ken insisted on driving to the hospital from their home on Currie Place in the Hammond Bay neighbourhood, rather than wait for an ambulance.

It was 11:30 p.m. when they set out and there was little traffic on the streets. Just as they were about to pull out onto Hammond Bay Road, Ken lost consciousness.

“I was looking to see if the road was clear and, all of a sudden, we veered off onto the sidewalk and he was slumped over,” Gillies said. “Now, at that point he was still breathing, but I had to get out of the car. I tried phoning 911, but I couldn’t get through to them and then I ran up to the corner and luckily – I think he was a Skip the Dishes fellow – pulled over and he tried on his cellphone. The dispatcher said, ‘You’re cutting out. You’re going to have to go somewhere else.’”

The driver promised to come back after he successfully called 911. When he left, Gillies said she panicked.

A young couple driving down Vista View Crescent stopped and tried to help, but were also unable to put through a 911 call on their cellphone, so the husband also drove off to find a stronger cell signal.

“By that time, I guess both of them had got through to a dispatcher, but I don’t know how many minutes went by before any kind of service came to us,” Gillies said.

By the time emergency services arrived, it was too late, and Ken Gillies died.

“It wasn’t that I didn’t try right away, but it kept cutting me out. I couldn’t get through,” Kathy said. “I was in such a shocked state. At least I went out to the road, because I didn’t know what else to do.”

The couple had been together for 50 years and married for 39 years. Ken and Kathy Gillies were both teachers. Ken spent most of his 38-year teaching career working in Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district.

“We just celebrated our anniversary July 7 and he died on the 12th,” she said. “I just don’t want anyone else to have to go through something like that.”

The widow is now fighting to get better cellular service brought to the area, but cell tower approval is handled by the federal government, which decides if a new cell tower is necessary. Once approved, cellular service providers must submit cell tower proposals to the appropriate local government and go through a public consultation process.

Telus proposed a tower for the area in 2013, but was rejected by the city council at the time due mostly to public opposition, even though former Nanaimo fire chief Craig Richardson argued that the lack of cell service was impacting Nanaimo Fire Rescue communications.

The fire department worked around the deficiency by adding special radio equipment to its trucks and a radio communications repeater in the area, but more than 10 years later, cellphone users are still unable to get a signal in a number of areas in Hammond Bay.

Gillies said she has written to her MP, and her neighbour Ross White is also helping to advocate for a cell tower for the area. He pointed out many people now have gotten away from land lines and population is on the rise, and with that, there is increased potential for accidents and medical emergencies, meaning more calls for emergency services.

Better cell service for Hammond Bay appears to be in the works, according to Bill Corsan, the City of Nanaimo’s director of corporate and business development, who was able to share a limited amount of information.

“The cellphone carriers are working on an application for a tower in the Hammond Bay area and a formal application will be submitted to the [Canadian Radio and Telecommunications Commission] this fall,” he said in an e-mail.

He added that he couldn’t comment on the proposed site as the city isn’t involved in those negotiations, but said city council and staff are well aware of the limited coverage in the Hammond Bay area and “have contacted the carriers who are also aware of the issue and we believe they will have a solution soon.”

Kathy said when someone is in a vehicle, they have nothing but their cellphone to try to get help.

She wishes she and her husband could have had just a few more years together.

“In my case, I’m going to live with not knowing whether my husband could have been saved,” she said.

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Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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