Fire dispatch upgrades on the table

Okanagan firefighters and area politicians attended a weekend meeting in Penticton to learn more about proposed upgrades to the current fire dispatch operations.

The goal of the RDOS meeting was to discuss the existing  telecommunications  infrastructure,  including towers , repeaters and base stations, and how changes would affect fire departments.

“It has been an ongoing concern with an aging infrastructure and we had a failure of the repeater system in late December,” said RDOS emergency services supervisor Dale Kronebusch.

The matter has been ongoing, with Planetworks Consulting hired last year to do a study and make further recommendations.

Adding to the immediacy of the situation, in December, heavy snowfall downed two power poles on Mt. Kobau where the communication tower is located. Auxiliary power generated by fuel and batteries, operated until about four days later when reserves were exhausted.

As a result, several South Okanagan fire halls had to rely on back-up systems to  communicate  with Kelowna dispatchers.

Electrical power to the communication tower that housed the emergency radio repeater used by the RDOS  fire departments is not expected to be restored until late spring.

On Saturday morning at the Penticton Lakeside Resort, Mory Kapustianyk with Planetworks  looked at RDOS areas of concern and offered solutions.

Among the concerns are no formal process for standardization/ coordination, substandard site installations, poor/ no signal coverage in some areas, lack of system redundancy in key system areas, some equipment near the end of its life and insufficient communications linking capacity.

“There is a lot of infrastructure that is old. It is a dilapidated system that needs to be fixed,” said Kapustianyk, who toured fire halls in the RDOS prior to the presentation to see what problems existed.

The options he came up with after evaluating the system were the zoned approach and one to one.

The zoned approach, which is less costly, is a sharing of a command channel or communication link to dispatch with specific areas around specific radio towers.

Fire dispatch in Kelowna would broadcast a signal to Okanagan Mountain. It would go from there to the appropriate tower which gets a radio signal out to fire halls.

With the one to one approach, it would go directly to one fire hall and others wouldn’t be heard talking.

“Zoned is like a party line,” said Kronebusch. “One to one is like a private phone line.”

The next step will be to form a committee comprised of representatives from all the fire departments and have ongoing meetings on the matter.

“There is no better or worse, one just costs more money,” said Mark Woods, community services manager for the RDOS.  “We will be carrying forward on this. Nothing is yet set in stone.”

Kaleden Fire Chief Darlene Bailey, who attended the meeting, said from a volunteer firefighter’s perspective the issue is complicated.

“We do need to make upgrades, no doubt, but keep it simple,” she said.

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