Fire dispatch goes south

Trent Ernst, Editor

In the end, it came down to money.

Faced with the choice of keeping Fire Dispatch services in Fort St John or moving it down south, the Peace River Regional District (PRRD) board voted to move services south, to the North Island 911 dispatch located in Campbell River.

This is concerning to many people in the North, including people on the PRRD board, which voted 7–5 in favour of the move.

One of those who voted against was Tumbler Ridge Mayor Don McPherson, who represents Tumbler Ridge on the PRRD board. He says he voted against the motion for a variety of reasons. Chief among them is the loss of local jobs. “We should be saving local jobs, not sending them south,” says McPherson.

Currently, fire service is dispatched out of Fort St. John for the North Peace and out of Dawson Creek for the South Peace. This has proved to be an expensive solution, with costs climbing from $372,000 in 2009 to $450,000 in 2015.

The City of Fort St. John proposed taking on those service for the entire region, which would have reduced the overall cost, though it would have still cost $140,000 more per year than the $635,477 over five years bid from Campbell River.

After closed negotiations with the city, the board chose to move forward with moving services to the North Island.

Mayor McPherson says the major argument against keeping the service locally was the cost, though the Regional District is already saving about $1.5-million over the next five years as the former provider for 911 services, the Prince George RCMP Operations and Communications Centre (OCC) is being replaced by E-Comm out of Vancouver.

911 services are divided into two parts. The initial call is routed to the Primary Safety Answering Point (PSAP). Prince George RCMP OCC has provided this service in the North for many years, but, as changes to the phone system made it easy for the service to be offered from anywhere in the province, they chose not to bid for the service, saying it was “not part of their core business.” Instead, the service is now offered by E-Comm.

From there, the call moves to a Secondary Safety Answer Point (SSAP), depending on the nature of the call. For Police Services, calls will be forwarded to Prince George RCMP OCC. For Ambulance Service, it is handled by BC Ambulance Dispatch in Kamloops. And soon, Fire Dispatch will be handled in Campbell River.

While Mayor McPherson says that the concern of most board members who voted for the motion was cost, Brad Sperling, chair of the PRRD recently stated that his decision was based on concerns about safety and service levels.

“This is the first time that any concern has been raised about the safety and service level provided by the City of Fort St. John Fire Department,” says a release from the City of Fort St. John. “The Fort St. John Fire Department has been providing Fire Dispatch services under the current 911 system for more than 16 years and has provided dispatch services for more than three decades in total. The City of Fort St. John Fire Department has been serving the residents of the North Peace through the Rural Fire Protection Agreement since 1988.”

A 2013 PRRD report says 95 percent of alarm calls received on emergency lines were answered within seven seconds and 99 percent of alarms were answered within 8 seconds.

Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman thinks that Sperling’s comments are unfair.

“These dedicated and professional people go above and beyond to ensure our safety. I am very disheartened and disappointed that a decision based on dollars is now being defended at the expense of the reputation of these dedicated people” stated Mayor Ackerman.

In 2012, the PRRD undertook a review of the 911 system in the Peace, that sought to determine in part how to integrate oil and gas emergency calls into the current 911 system. The findings of that report, prepared by Pomax, were presented before the PRRD board in June of last year, and mentioned nothing about safety and service levels, saying only they “The industry standard for fire dispatch centres in North America is the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221: Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems. The Peace River Regional District does not address any performance standards for call answer and dispatch with its current fire dispatch service providers.”

While that may be true, argues Mayor Ackerman, “the City of Fort St John Fire Dispatch service voluntarily adopted the National Fire Protection Association standard for the installation, maintenance and use of emergency communications systems (NFPA 1221) and voluntarily updated Fire Dispatch equipment during the construction of Fire Hall No 1.”