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Failure underscores need for new emergency dispatch equipment

Fire departments in some rural areas operated on backup radio systems over the Christmas holiday following a loss of power to communication equipment on a remote, snow-covered mountain.

The failure underscores the need for new emergency dispatch equipment that was made clear in a consultant’s report completed last year, said Dale Kronebusch, emergency services supervisor for the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.

“This just highlights the urgency of having to get it done without delay,” he said.

Heavy snowfall last month on Mount Kobau, about halfway between Osoyoos and Keremeos, downed FortisBC power lines and cut off the electrical supply to the RDOS radio repeater there, Kronebusch said.

Backup generators that kicked in to power the equipment ran out of fuel after six days, followed by batteries which ran out of juice two days after that.

Kronebusch said emergency dispatchers in Kelowna realized the repeater was down on Dec. 22 after routine radio checks identified the problem, and access problems on Mount Kobau meant the repeater stayed down until Jan. 2 and workers have struggled to keep it powered since. The repeater has been back online since Friday but will likely be powered by a generator for the foreseeable future and might not be reconnected to the electrical grid until the spring.

That repeater gives fire departments in places like Naramata, Oliver, Osoyoos and the Similkameen the ability to have two-way radio conversations with dispatchers in Kelowna. The backup system is still able to page firefighters and give call details, but it doesn’t allow fire departments to speak to dispatchers by radio.

“I think at this point the public is not at risk. I think if we start losing phone lines and cell services, yeah, we could be looking at a point where it’s a little more risky,” Kronebusch said.

Naramata Fire Chief Will McCutcheon said he relied on his cell phone to speak to dispatchers when his department was called out to a handful of medical emergencies over the Christmas holiday.

“We have been responding using the backup system and it has worked just fine. We went, did our jobs, came back and everyone’s been taken care of,” he said.

“It’s not as fluid, but it’s still quite effective.”

In November, consultant Mory Kapustianyk pointed out numerous flaws in the RDOS emergency dispatch system and said luck alone has prevented a major mishap due to inadequate equipment.

Kapustianyk recommended a phased, $1.5-million upgrade the RDOS board agreed to discuss during budget deliberations.

McCutcheon said he’s anxious for new communications equipment, as are most rural fire chiefs, but noted better gear is only as effective as the number of volunteers those departments have available to call with it.

“The technology is great and wonderful, but you still have to have people to respond,” McCutcheon said.

“There’s more to it than just radios and whether the system’s down or up.”

Kronebusch said technicians sent to Mount Kobau have told him the snowpack that’s created the problems there is the deepest they’ve seen in at least a decade.

FortisBC spokesperson Ruth Sulentich confirmed in a statement that heavy snowfall on the mountain knocked down trees that then damaged “several poles and many spans of wire.”

She said repairs “have been problematic due to weather, snow accumulation and steep grades, resulting in safety concerns for crews. In order to fix the damage, several trees need to be removed, many of which are not accessible by vehicle.”

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