Saturday workshop fails to satisfy

Not all regional fire departments are happy with proposed changes to 911 dispatch service after lengthy Saturday meeting

Regional district directors

Regional district directors

Regional District Okanagan Similkameen Directors, RDOS Emergency Services staff and members of regional district fire departments gathered at the Penticton Lakeside Resort on Saturday, February 9 to discuss upgrades to the 911 emergency communication system.

Recent controversy over the use of landlines versus radio relay sites was a main reason for the meeting, but while representatives of Planetworks were on hand to discuss their report, there was a noted absence of Warren Carr from Telus, who was also on the agenda.

The study by Planetworks Consultants that favoured radio links came under scrutiny by regional district directors because of a lack of information regarding alternative communications systems such as internet and phone lines.

Several directors also expressed a desire to see  a cost analysis between radio links and a dedicated Telus line at the February 7 regional board meeting. The directors were also aware that several regional departments were not satisfied with the direction the telecommunication upgrade was taking.

Approximately 45 people attended the 911 telecommunication workshop. Mory Kapustianyk  and Keith Brady of Planetworks Consulting spoke at length about their qualifications, expertise and reasons why their study came to the conclusions it did, delivered in a similar format to a presentation the directors heard at the December 6, 2012 meeting of the board.

Landlines were not given prominence because of the uncertainty regarding the delivery of the signal, Kapustianyk told the group. The line could be run underground, or strung along poles, potentially compromising the reliability of the signal. It was also a priority for Kapustianyk to use a singular method of delivery for both the primary (radio) and backup dispatch link (phone line).

Regional District Director Michael Brydon told the Review that figures obtained by the regional district for a rented Telus line compared favourably to the cost of  a radio network, but after 10 years the cost of a landline became increasingly more expensive.

Much of Saturday’s discussion centred on the two options presented by Planetworks – communication with regional fire departments through a “zoned” approach, (at a cost of 1.5 million dollars) or a “one to one” approach for more than two million dollars.

Noting that independent communication between firehalls and dispatch was a costly choice, Kapustianyk said that dispatch communication (command) was dealt with separately from voice communication (tactical).

Regional district directors had elected to go with the less expensive zoned approach.

The biggest issue of concern with the zoned option, amongst the fire chiefs in attendance was that of command having to carry two radios during an incident – one to communicate with dispatch, and the other to communicate with the crew. Fire department officials were also unimpressed with a change in paging out, which will have volunteer firefighters only receive paging tones on the initial call out. Presently, pagers also carry dispatch’s original message to command, so firefighters responding to a page out have some idea as to what they are attending.

Officials from Peachland, West Kelowna and Ellison fire departments also attended, describing their experiences with a similar system that had been introduced to the Central Okanagan Regional District four years ago. For the most part, they said the system was better than what they had previously had, and wouldn’t go back.

Several departments were concerned about radio “voids” in their service areas, with Kapustianyk replying that some departments may need to add repeaters within their area to get full coverage, a cost that would be borne by individual departments. Regional district officials emphasized the fact that their mandate was to provide a dispatch connection to the region’s fire departments; any other improvements would be paid for at the local level.

Several departments remained unconvinced of the proposed upgrade’s merits, even as the workshop ended. RDOS Board Chair Dan Ashton assured those remaining that the upgrade choice was not a “done deal”  yet, while acknowledging that the board was very cognizant of costs.

 

Kapustianyk also advised regional fire departments to form a committee to ensure that anything individual departments did in the future to upgrade their systems would be compatible with the rest of the infrastructure.