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Undated handout photo of the COW set up outside of Fire Hall 5 in Fort Mac. This is boosting service for the emergency operations centre inside.

As wildfires ripped through Fort McMurray, telecom providers in the city have grappled with power outages, fuel shortages and the threat of losing key pieces of infrastructure as they worked to ‎keep communications services online for emergency responders and the eventual return of their customers.

Telus Corp. ‎and Shaw Communications Inc. are the two main operators in the area and both have crucial structures in the heavily damaged Beacon Hill neighbourhood. With widespread power outages in the area, they have been forced to rely on generators and faced challenges refuelling, especially during the height of the blaze.

Shaw's central hub – a low-profile cinder-block building that connects the "last mile" of its cable and Internet services in the city – is in Beacon Hill, as is one of Telus's cellular towers, a key structure as it acts as a primary transport link for network traffic in the area. Neither were destroyed in the fires and are among the few remaining structures still standing in the neighbourhood.

"If [that tower] went down, we would have lost cell coverage for the entire region," Brian Bettis, general manager for Telus in Northern Alberta, said in an interview this week. "It's also what we call a main fibre transport for the region, so it would have had big implications for land-line service as well."

Mr. Bettis lives and works in Fort McMurray and has remained in the area throughout the crisis – apart from a brief visit over the weekend in Edmonton with his fiancée who has been there since the evacuation – working with officials in the emergency-operations centres and taking occasional naps in his car. He has spent much of his time at an emergency centre set up at Fire Hall 5, near the airport.

"That tower was on a generator and we needed to get out to refuel it, but it wasn't safe," he said, recalling a middle-of-the-night run he and a network technician took with a police escort shortly after Fort McMurray was evacuated on May 3. "The technician met me at Fire Hall 5 and we went together with an RCMP officer who drove us through a wall of flame to get to the Beacon Hill tower and refuel the generator."

Telus is the primary wireless carrier in the area and has 19 cell towers in the city, Mr. Bettis said, adding that the company only lost one to fire damage during the crisis. But it managed to keep its most critical infrastructure safe and online, he said. Fuel was at times hard to come by, and he said he asked every Telus employee that came to the area to assist to bring five jerry cans of gasoline for themselves (and other drivers in distress) and five additional cans to contribute to the generators.

Another key Telus tower on Stoney Mountain Road leases space to Nav Canada and is the base for air-traffic control radio in the region, particularly important for co-ordinating the more than 100 aircraft dropping water and fire retardant on the fire.

"There was a really significant fire out that way … and [the Stoney Mountain] tower was on a generator and there was only three hours of fuel in it," Mr. Bettis said, explaining that a strong working relationship with emergency responders helped deliver a solution. "We had an offer from Wildfire Alberta to get a helicopter up and heli-escort our technicians to the fire. So they drove and the helicopter was their eyes. It went with them the whole way and was ready to airlift them out if anything got too hairy. They got the tower back up and ready to go."

In addition to keeping its cell towers and three central offices (similar to Shaw's main hub) powered up and safe from the fires, Telus brought six cell-sites on wheels – which are referred to as "COWs" and towed on large flatbeds behind trucks – up to the city.

It was a struggle to get the COWs to the area, Mr. Bettis said – "They kept getting stuck at checkpoints because the fire would cross over the highway" – but after they eventually arrived, he was able to deploy them strategically next to emergency and evacuation centres to bolster cellular capacity. Telus also moved the COWs to the outer edges of the community as needed to extend the range of communications for first responders, he said.

"Fort McMurray's cell network is probably the most robust in Alberta," he said, noting it was built that way to accommodate the demand regularly spurred by busloads of oil sands workers on their mobile devices as they return to the city after work. "The challenge was that we were losing towers. There was a period where we had up to six of the 19 towers [without power]."

Shaw and Telus have employees that regularly live and work in the city and both companies said their first priority was ensuring they were evacuated safely. Greg Pultz, vice-president of operations for Shaw, said his company has had up to 10 workers in the city during the fires. Telus, which has had to deal with protecting and refuelling its cell towers as well as its three central offices, has had up to 100 employees in the city during the crisis, with between 50 and 60 sleeping on cots in the company's office at times.

After about a week of relative calm, the wildfires have found renewed force and are threatening the oil sands facilities north of Fort McMurray this week. While keeping a close eye on that situation, in the city, the current focus for Telus and Shaw is to ensure full service is in place by the time their customers can finally return home.

"It's been a herculean effort by our cable repair and network teams," Mr. Bettis said. "They've replaced huge DSLAMs [digital subscriber line access multiplexers] at the central offices that were damaged by the fire, pedestal boxes in neighbourhoods, splicing cables – it's been a lot of work."

Mr. Pultz said that in heavily affected areas some of Shaw's coaxial cables were damaged but the majority of its wires are underground and were relatively unscathed. He said the company has restored service to more than 90 per cent of the homes it serves.

"We don't want anyone worrying about their bills or anything along those lines from Shaw while they're out of their homes," he said, noting the company has already said it will offer a credit for 30 days and will adjust that as needed based on customers' service needs. He said Shaw has learned the importance of dealing with customers on a case-by-case basis from previous experiences with natural disasters such as the floods in southern Alberta and fires in Slave Lake.

Shaw also opened up its extensive WiFi hotspot network in Northern Alberta to allow anyone to use it, whether they are Shaw customers or not.

Telus is similarly crediting Fort McMurray customers with an entire month of home services such as Internet, home phone and television and is waiving cellular overage charges and offering free calling anywhere in Canada from its payphones in the area. The company also sent 1,000 wireless devices and chargers to emergency and evacuation centres.

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