Fire in mobile black spot

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Calling 111 in an emergency is still an impossible task on some stretches of a Central Otago highway.

A car caught fire on State Highway 8 north of Tarras late last month, but no-one in the queue of traffic could get a cellphone signal to call for help.

Even the option of ‘‘emergency calls only’’ was not offered across screens.

Instead, the motorists asked the person parked behind them if they had a fire extinguisher.

The response was a resounding ‘‘no’’.

Eventually, someone drove about 10 minutes further up the road to get a signal to call
111.

A Fire and Emergency New Zealand (Fenz) spokesman confirmed a crew from Luggate was alerted at 2.35pm and arrived, along with backup from Tarras, about 2.50pm.

By then, the car was engulfed in flames and all possessions in the vehicle were destroyed.

A reporter for The News was at the scene and described large booms as the fire took hold.

The Fenz spokesman said the car’s occupants did the right thing by getting out and standing clear as soon as they realised what was happening.

He reminded people a fire could happen at any time, so it was important to be prepared.

‘‘Motorists should consider keeping a small fire extinguisher in their car,’’ the Fenz spokesman said.

‘‘It is also beneficial to ensure your car is serviced regularly and clear out dry material from the undercarriage of your vehicle if you have been driving through long grass or off-road.’’

A police spokeswoman said any improvements to mobile coverage throughout New Zealand were also welcomed by police.

The Government is rolling out its Mobile Black Spot Fund (MBSF) across parts of Central Otago to improve the availability of mobile services.

Work on the project is ongoing, and has so far enabled more than 500km of 4G coverage to state highways across the country.

According to Crown Infrastructure Partners, help is on the way.

Stakeholder relations manager Tanya Hansen said adding coverage to more state highways across the country would improve people’s ability to make emergency calls, so long as there was a signal from a particular mobile network operator.

She said anumber of new towers were available on SH8, including Lindis Pass east and Lindis Valley, among other areas, had provided 28km of new 4G coverage.

More work was planned for the Lindis Pass and other areas, which would provide a further 50km of 4G coverage.

Safety was paramount, she said.

‘‘The key need for state highways was to address the need for emergency services to be able to attend incidents quicker on some of the country’s more dangerous roads.’’

It also aimed to provide coverage to people needing to call for assistance, whether that be emergency services or family.

The programme was due to be completed in 2023.

By then, 60km more highway in Otago was expected to have cellphone coverage.

AA New Zealand spokesman Dylan Thomsen said the fact there were still spots with no cellphone coverage was a concern.

If someone sustained lifethreatening injuries but noone could call for help straight away, it could affect their chance of survival, he said.

‘‘Anything that adds extra time to being able to call for help increases those risks.’’

Situations that ‘‘extreme’’ were ‘‘relatively rare, thankfully’’.

He was pleased work was being done to improve the situation, but the geography or remoteness of certain areas still made it difficult to get a signal, Mr Thomsen said.

On occasion, the AA had assisted members who had broken down in black spots, but just how many was not known, he said.

In those situations, a driver would often wave down a passing motorist, who would drive them to the next town to call for help, or they would walk to find coverage in the area.

‘‘Our local contractors know the area well and where there can be issues with reception, so they’re used to helping people out in these situations.’’

A NZ Transport Agency spokesman said about 1000 vehicles travelled over the Haast Pass (SH6) each day, and about 2400 over the Lindis Pass (SH8), which meant there was likely to be someone nearby who could help in an emergency.