Former Penticton dispatcher grades RDOS communications study

I was pleased to finally see that a Communications study on the RDOS Fire/Radio system has been completed, even if a year or two overdue

To the Editor:

Communications Study Report Card

I was pleased to finally see that a Communications study on the RDOS Fire/Radio system has been completed, though I feel that it was a year or two overdue. Had the study been done while Penticton Dispatch was still in operational mode, the consultants would’ve seen an entirely different way of doing things. They didn’t (as far as I read in the report) include how things WERE done before in comparison to how Kelowna will now do them. A bit of history is required to explain things fully. In 1990 when the system was established, Penticton had a radio link direct to a solar powered site on Apex mountain (not Beaconsfield). This site was used for a couple of years but during the winters it became obvious that a powered site was required due to lack of charging by the solar panels.  The decision was made to move to the RCMP AC powered site on Beaconsfield Mtn (what most people would call the ski hill). This site, being further North and slightly lower than Apex proved to be difficult for some of the Southern Fire Depts such as Osoyoos and Oliver to access, and a second site was established for linking on Mt. Kobau just South of Oliver. The Penticton signal was then changed to first access Mt. Kobau, then the link went to Beaconsfield to service the Western Departments. At this time, it was suggested by two of our dispatchers (in charge of Communications)  in Penticton (myself included)  that the sites be “split” to give more flexibiltiy to dispatching and this would allow multiple depts to be accessed at the same time. The RDOS fire chiefs decided against this proposal as they preferred a large “Party Line” link. In some ways their reasoning made sense, should mutual aid be needed but it also prevented more than one department at a time from using the link. It could have been very easily split by just obtaining a couple of additional radios and channels. Penticton Dispatch had the console to allow such additions, even at that time. Now, the Planetworks Consultants are suggesting splitting this system but are also suggesting that Okanagan Mountain be used to do so. Had the Consultants enquired, they would’ve seen that this isn’t necessary at all; at least not from the Penticton area. The Firehall in Penticton does not have to SEE the mountain top site; a lot of the RDOS linked depts don’t either. Radio signals bounce well and we proved that over many years; the same as you cel phone doesn’t need to SEE the cel sites. Even after the Mt. Kobau site was established, we still maintained another radio that could and did on occasion get used to access Beaconsfield site directly (if Mt. Kobau went down). Total cost for that setup (owned by Penticton) was approximately $200 and it worked very well. These consultants have stated that a priority should be to establish radio links from Kelowna; using Okanagan Mountain. This will not come without substantial cost and would have been completely unnecessary had dispatch remained in Penticton. We could’ve done all of the suggested splitting of the system at minimal costs. I have worked in radio communications for over 30 years; 20 years as a dispatcher in charge of communications and spent countless days on mountain tops and built repeater systems; so I think that I can speak with some confidence. I have also been to almost every RDOS radio site in the system. I also checked with my former mentor, a dispatcher and radio guru who taught me a great deal about commecial radio over the years, just to confirm the facts. The RCMP and EHS as far as I know, for the most part, use Telus hardlines to get to a lot of their repeater sites. Had this been done with the Kelowna links, rather than utilize internet lines, I would bet that the consultants would’ve given a different and more favourable report. Hard lines are used all over the provinces for just such purposes but trying to use the cheaper internet lines through a third party is not up to emergency service standards, unless one has a very good backup system. The backup system that is in place in most RDOS fire departments are 20 second long, one-way paging devices; no two-way conversation can take place. I’ve heard folks say that Cel phones could be relied on as a backup; that is nonsense as they are the very first devices to go down during any major emergency. The consultants’ report called the present system a “series of hops”; quite an accurate description. When dispatch was in Penticton, signals went directly to Summerland and directly to the RDOS mountain top repeater sites and local rdos depts. Whoever decided to run the internet lines through the school board system didn’t understand that it could’ve been done in a simpler and cheaper manner. It would’ve made far more sense to go directly from Kelowna to Summerland via Telus hardline (not cheap internet lines through a third party) and the same type of Telus lines direct to the Penticton Fire department repeater site. Adding more radios at the school board site just added another hop; another point of failure and more unnecessary expense.

The phase two in the report suggests upgrading the Penticton area. Penticton has kept up pretty well over the years with equipment upgrades. Perhaps they mean “bringing back” the several radio channels that were dropped when Kelowna took over? This was a serious degradation of service and since Penticton will be on the hook for 42 per cent of the entire upgrades in the RDOS, I think that our taxpayers deserve to at least see the  levels of service that we once enjoyed when Penticton was dispatching, brought back.

Allan C.L. Stark, Retired Dispatcher, Penticton


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