Emergency communications study unveiled to committee members at RDOS

consultants study outlines 1.5 to 2 million dollars worth of improvements for RDOS emergency communications system

The Regional District Board of Directors were given the figure for enhancing emergency telecommunications at the November 15 Protective Services Committee meeting.

Mory Kapustianyk, an engineer with Planetworks Consulting Corporation, presented the estimate after a short presentation summarizing the study.

Upgrades to the system could cost between 1.5 and two million dollars, depending on the selection of two options presented by Kapustianyk at the conclusion of his presentation.

The regional district’s present situation in terms of its communications system is “not unusual,” Kapustianyk told the board.

“It’s how most departments operate – but that’s good and bad news.”

Kapustianyk said that after looking at local communications radio sites and interviewing regional district fire chiefs, Planetworks had come up with a baseline assessment and a shopping list of things that need to be done.

The present communication setup contains three “layers”:

– initial dispatch

– ongoing communication between dispatch and officer in charge

– firefighters talking to each other.

Problems carrying on multiple radio conversations with various regional departments were found to be a major issue in the study, in which it was hoped to resolve the following communications issues currently inherent in the regional district’s telecommunications setup:

1. Allow dispatch to send out an initial page without delay.

“This is probably the biggest risk of any 911 centre,” Kapustianyk said, “if anyone is going to be caught on anything, it’s that delay.”

(The delay Kapustianyk referred to involved the possiblity, under the present system, of dispatch not being able to send a 911 page out if it was already tied up on an emergency with another fire department; basically, under the present system, dispatch can only communicate with one department at a time.)

2. Provide ongoing communication between a regional department and dispatch anywhere in the regional district, at all times.

3. Develop the ability to detect communication problems before the system is needed.

4. Provide a pre planned back up plan should (1) or (2) above fail.

Kapustianyk described the present communications systems as a “series of hops” with the data link between Kelowna and Penticton, to radio links from antennas based at the school board offices, up to mountain top links within the regional district, and from there to the applicable fire department.

The  “series of hops” only affect the rural departments, as Penticton and Summerland’s departments depend only on  the commercial link out of Kelowna.

Fourteen departments share that one line,” Kapustianyk  explained, “if dispatch has concurrent events, then you have a problem. You’ve got one big party line, and dispatch trying to talk to multiple departments. Two concurrent calls could result in missed communications, possibly even a missed page out.

You’ve been running this system for all these years – you’ve been lucky.”

Kapustinyk broke down the regional district’s departments into three zones, with zone one containing the Kaleden and Okangan Falls departments (averaging two calls per day), Keremeos in zone two (one call every 22 hours), and Hedley in zone three (one call every 60 hours on average).

Once again, Kapustianyk assured the board that the regional district’s issues were not uncommon.

“It’s a big chunk of what we do, correcting this problem,” he explained.

The areas of concern highighted in the  study were:

– the need for a cost apportionment policy to be developed, in order to define who is responsible for the system.

– no formal  process for standardization.

– many radio sites need to be improved and secured.

– dependency on commercial data connections ( the Kelowna link)

– poor /  no signal coverage in some areas.

– lack of system redundancy.

– lack of system health monitoring.

– Emergency Operations Centre not connected to the radio network.

– some equipment near the end of its useful life.

– insufficient communication linking capacity.

Two solutions were presented to the board, one using a “zoned” approach while the other would use a “one to one” approach.

Applying a four phased approach in order to ease budget shock, the zoned approach is estimated at 1.5 million dollars;  the one to one approach at 2 million dollars.

Phase one would involve prep work, phase two would upgrade the Penticton area, with Phase three and four upgrading zone two and three respectively.

Kapustianyk pointed out the communication link between Kelowna 911 dispatch and the Penticton school board as an area of concern.  Calling it a “commercial grade data connection,” Kapustinayk prioritized it for replacement with a radio link as part of the first phases that would take place to upgrade the system. A co-location agreement with licensees of the radio towers on Okanagan Mountain would have to be arranged, in addition to an ongoing rental agreement.

The Kelowna link did not exist prior to the reassignment of 911 services to Kelowna late last year. The move – which was made to save 1.79 million over five years –  cost several local jobs. The communication link has been criticized over the past 11 months as a weak link in the system – that did not exist prior to Kelowna taking on dispatch services – that would need to be fixed at additional cost to the taxpayer.

The regional district board will be discussing the study further, prior to setting the budget for 2013. Kapustianyk indicated it would take between 18 and 24 months to introduce all the upgrades.


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