It’s no secret that cellular service in parts of rural Canada can leave something to be desired.

The issue was headline news this summer when spotty cell coverage was blamed for the loss of both life and property. A 77-year-old man in Alonsa, Man. died in August when an EF-4 tornado hit the community. The man’s cellphone did not have service and did not receive an automated tornado warning.

Poor cell coverage was also blamed for compounding the situation in Crystal City, Man. when an Aug. 20 fire destroyed the local grain elevator. Firefighters and area farmers sent numerous texts asking volunteers to bring water, but none were received.

The lack of coverage in rural regions is a particular concern for many ag retailers and their employees, who often work alone with intermittent cell service or no service at all. “It seems that any time you leave an urban centre, cell reception is hit or miss,” says Lyle Gouldsborough, agro centre manager at Dauphin Co-op.

Reliable Alternatives

The situation was troubling for Gouldsborough and his management team. Their drivers frequently travel up to 100 kilometres to make deliveries and would be unreachable most of the time because they lacked cell service. That meant the office had no way of notifying drivers about a new order that came in and drivers couldn’t contact office staff if they encountered any trouble along their route.

This prompted Co-op management to look for more reliable alternatives to cellular communications. A little over one year ago they installed a state-of-the-art GPS tracking system in three of their delivery vehicles, allowing them to pinpoint a vehicle’s exact location at any given time and communicate with the driver via text messaging. The driver can also send an alert to the office if they experience an emergency.

Unlike the CB radios Co-op drivers once used, Goldsborough says the new system is much easier to use, and drivers don’t have to be in their cabin to operate it.

The system was developed by Winnipeg-based Strategic Alarm Systems (SAS) and is being used by Co-op outlets across Western Canada. It features four components: a Garmin vehicle-dedicated navigation system, a wireless receiver, a satellite unit mounted to the vehicle’s roof and a fob that sends out emergency alerts via the satellite unit. It functions in virtually any location and even the most extreme weather conditions.

To send an emergency alert, the user simply presses a recessed button on the fob. The user can be up to 65 feet from the receiver, or the signal can be boosted to travel as far as 500 feet. Even if the user is injured, if they can press one button, they can successfully transmit a signal to the receiver in their vehicle, which is then sent by satellite to SAS’s server, and the alert is distributed by text or email to anyone signed up to receive it. All of this happens within a couple of minutes.

Better Peace of Mind

Jim MacMillan, Dauphin Co-op’s petroleum manager, says the system has provided managers and drivers with a peace of mind that wasn’t possible before.

MacMillan cites an example from several months ago when office staff received an alert from a driver using the new system. They received a precise location for the driver and someone was quickly dispatched to check on him. It was a false alarm – the driver had inadvertently pressed the alert button on his fob – but it proved that the system works.

“If it turned out to be that he’d had a heart attack, or broke his leg, we wouldn’t have known for possibly three or four hours until he came back, or we started looking for him if he hadn’t pulled into the yard,” MacMillan says. “I was so impressed, I actually called SAS and said, ‘Hey, this just happened, and this system is pretty amazing.’”

Greg Kaminski has been a driver for Dauphin Co-op for nearly 30 years and estimates he’s without cell service for 80 per cent of his work day. Although he never encountered a safety issue as a result, it was always in the back of his mind, and he says the new satellite communication system in his truck has been a godsend.

“It’s 100 per cent better for us now. It’s a lot safer,” he says. “If you are going to be without cell service most of the day I would recommend this system.”

Kaminski says an added benefit of the system has been increased productivity. In the past, because office staff couldn’t let drivers know about new orders in real time, drivers would often return to the retail outlet to check in before heading out again. With satellite communication, drivers can receive new orders on the road, saving both time and fuel.

Return on Investment

Satellite phones are another increasingly popular option for ag retailers looking for reliable communication with employees. Carol Stuart, vice-president of sales and marketing for Prairie Mobile Communications, says the number of units her company sells and leases has tripled over the past year and a large number of those customers work in the ag sector.

Prairie Mobile carries several models of satellite phones that feature programmable emergency S.O.S. buttons and can operate in virtually any location or weather conditions. Satellite phones are not cheap, a single unit can cost as much as $1,600 plus data and talk fees, but Stuart says the return on investment is worth it.

“Ag retailers need to consider the investment and the value that investment brings,” Stuart says. “It does cost a lot but it saves time and money in the field. You can waste hours without communication and that’s unproductive time.”

A satellite phone can allow an ag retailer to comply with the Canada Occupational Health and Safety Work Alone requirements, while helping to ensure the well-being of their employees in the field.

Stuart recommends all rural businesses with employees working remotely invest in some form of satellite communications. However, she adds that it’s important those businesses draft some form of guidelines on how that technology is used. “It’s not about texting or staying on top of your apps. Your employees have to know the reasons for using it and when to use it,” she says.

For Goldsborough, Dauphin Co-op’s system has already proven its worth through the improvements it has made to employee productivity and employee safety, something he considers crucial for retailers.

“If you’re not taking the health and safety side of things seriously, I don’t think you’re going to be in this business for long,” he says, adding that his outlet is considering installing the system in more of its vehicles. “It’s a changing world from 10, 20 or 30 years ago and it’s not going to stop changing. Communication is more important now than it ever has been.”

 

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