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Mayors question fragmented dispatch system

May 24 2012

Several mayors questioned the sense of building up Langford's fire dispatch centre if it's going to mean continued fragmentation of the emergency communications system, in which six police and fire dispatch centres service Greater Victoria.

"So this as efficient as we can get?" asked Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin at Wednesday's Capital Regional District planning and protective services committee meeting. Fortin was questioning why the CRD is accepting the status quo - three fire and three police dispatch centres - when it might be more efficient to consolidate.

"Nope, definitely not," said Bob Lapham, CRD's general manager for planning and protective services. "It's basically based on a set of preferences that have been expressed - by the fire chiefs and municipalities on how they want to do fire dispatch."

The CRD - which negotiates a contract with Langford Fire on behalf of 16 fire departments in the West Shore, Sooke, communities on Vancouver Island's west coast and the Gulf Islands - would like to see consolidation or, at the very least, consistency, in fire dispatch, but it doesn't have the power to force it on communities.

Despite its reservations, the planning and protective services committee on Wednesday approved the plan to beef up Langford's fire dispatch centre, even though there are no assurances it will address problems identified in a 144-page report commissioned by the CRD in 2011.

The report raised concerns about the use of different technologies 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."

Langford is poised to spend $100,000 to upgrade its dispatch capabilities, but there's no guarantee it will use the same technology as Saanich, a key recommendation in the analysis of the region's fire dispatch model, completed by Planetworks Consulting's David Mitchell, who is the director of fire services for the emergency communications centre on the Lower Mainland.

Using the same technology would allow dispatchers to move easily between centres if one of them were to fail.

Saanich's dispatch system - Intergraph - is the same one used by the B.C. Ambulance Service and the most compliant with National Fire Protection Association standards, according to the 2011 report.

Langford Fire Chief Bob Beckett has not yet said whether the ability to provide backup will be built in to the upgrade.

"Some of the money we're spending may have nothing to do with the interoperability, it's just in-house enhanced ability for whatever reason," Beckett said, noting that interoperability is built into the region's shared CREST radio system.

View Royal Mayor Graham Hill and Colwood Mayor Carol Hamilton - whose fire departments have recently left Langford dispatch for Saanich - were the only CRD board members to reject the plan.

"This represents continuing fragmentation in the region," Hill said.

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

David Hodgins, an Esquimalt councillor and former B.C. fire commissioner, said the unwillingness to move to a single dispatch in the region ignores what's best for public safety.

"A single [emergency] 911 and dispatch system would allow for efficiencies and economies of scale needed to support public life safety in the right way," Hodgins said in an email. kderosa@timescolonist.com

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