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Dispatch centres' differing systems raise concerns

May 19 2012

Langford Fire will spend $100,000 to upgrade its dispatch centre, according to documents released Friday, but it will still use different technology than the emergency communications centre in Saanich, making it more difficult for the two to provide backup for each other in an emergency.

A 2011 report presented to the Capital Regional District on fire dispatch in Greater Victoria recommended consolidating the dispatch centres to a single centre or two using the same technology.

The report raised concerns about different technologies in use at the Victoria, Saanich and Langford dispatch centres and the lack of an "integrated failover or disaster recovery model for all centres within the region."

Saanich recently upgraded to Intergraph technology for dispatch, which is the most compliant with National Fire Protection Association standards. Langford Fire appears poised to keep its existing fire department management software, saying the technologies don't have to be the same for the centres to be compatible.

Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard said while he believes Saanich's technology is among the best in the province, he doesn't want to force its services on communities.

"If they want to duplicate what we have, that's good. So long as there's compatibility," Leonard said. "I would optimistically hope the CRD, Langford, Victoria would choose the technology that we're using."

Langford Fire and several fire chiefs who use its dispatch believe the 2011 report - completed by Planetworks Consulting's David Mitchell, who is the director of fire services for the emergency communications centre on the Lower Mainland - is flawed.

Jeff Spriggs, Langford's deputy fire chief, disagrees with the report's assertion that the centres can't provide backup for the others, saying the CREST radio system ensures first responders can always communicate.

The $100,000 upgrade will enhance Langford's capabilities from call relay (the dispatcher transfers the information to the responding agency and then drops the call), to full fire dispatch (the dispatcher remains available in case additional resources are needed). Some equipment will also be replaced or upgraded.

The upgrade will result in at least a 60 per cent hike in dispatch costs over five years for the 16 fire departments planning to contract with Langford.

Sooke Fire Chief Steve Sorensen said he was surprised at the cost increase, which will see the town's annual dispatch costs rise to $72,089 in 2016 from $43,407 in 2011. "It was a big jump," he said. "We didn't really have much choice."

But Metchosin Mayor John Ranns, who is chairman of the CRD planning and protective services board, said the cost increase is worth it for rural communities to maintain a strong level of input in the services they are getting.

View Royal and Colwood, opted to contract instead with Saanich. Their costs will increase 21 per cent from 2011 to 2012 and 3.5 per cent a year over the fiveyear agreement.

Travis Whiting, CRD's senior manager of protective services, said the regional government is committed to unifying 911 and dispatch services, but it can't be forced upon the municipalities.

The CRD negotiates a dispatch contract with Langford Fire on behalf of 16 fire departments in West Shore, Sooke, and communities on the Island's west coast and the Gulf Islands.

Saanich Fire Chief Mike Burgess said Saanich's centre has the capacity to provide dispatch for the entire region, and would bid if the CRD held a competitive bidding process for fire dispatch.

Victoria Fire is also looking to improve its out-of-date dispatch capabilities, but Chief Jeff Lambert has not revealed whether Victoria will upgrade or contract out with Saanich or Langford.

The fractured emergency communications system was put under the lens during the coroners inquest into the 2007 Oak Bay murder-suicide in which Peter Lee killed his son, his wife and her parents before killing himself.

A 911 call was transferred through a maze of dispatchers and police officers from different departments.

kderosa@timescolonist.com

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