Consultant sounds alarm over region’s fire dispatch system

Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen board advised to proceed with a $1.5-million upgrade to the dispatch system

Just plain luck is to thank for the avoidance of a public safety mishap due to the region’s antiquated fire dispatch system, a consultant told local politicians.

“You’ve been very lucky that you haven’t hit a situation where you have a perfect storm. And those perfect storms do happen,” warned Mory Kapustianyk.

The engineer for Planetworks Consulting last Thursday presented his $50,000 report on the emergency radio system to a committee of the Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen.

Fourteen volunteer fire departments share the same radio link to dispatch, Kapustianyk explained, and that means two departments trying to communicate on the same radio channel with dispatch at exactly the same time could result in one not getting through. The worst-case scenario, he said, would be a call-out page not being broadcast.

Kapustianyk was unable to quantify the risk.

“I can’t give you the odds. I just know that your neck is out, I would say. Penticton and Summerland not so much, but with the rest, good for you that you’ve gotten away with this.”

Penticton and Summerland, the busiest departments, were given dedicated lines to the Kelowna Fire Department when dispatch was moved there in 2010.

The consultant also raised serious concerns with the insecure installation of radio equipment he inspected both inside fire halls and in remote locations, including a lack of lightning protection and bracing to keep the gear from moving around in the event of an earthquake. Most alarming, Kapustianyk said, was a radio repeater installed in someone’s barn in the rural area outside Princeton.

“You could walk through into the barn, it’s totally open, and either you or the animals that are on that farm could start poking around,” he said. “It’s totally open to the elements.”

What’s more, the property owner told Kapustianyk he “inherited” the system three years ago and provides electricity to it free of charge.

The consultant noted though that the problems he discovered are typical of rural fire departments, and praised the volunteers for making the system work.

“They’re doing a really good job of surviving by doing what they can do, and I give them a lot of credit for that. But overall, it’s a weak point in your whole system.”

Kapustianyk recommended the RDOS proceed with a phased, $1.5-million upgrade of the system that would also build future capacity. The RDOS board will discuss the report further during budget talks later this month.

“The bottom line is I think it was an awakening of the state of the system,” RDOS board chair Dan Ashton said afterwards, adding the need for upgrades is not related to the relocation of dispatch service to Kelowna.

He also said situation is not as dire as Kapustianyk made it out to be because there are back-ups built into the system.

“The system has performed as it was designed,” Ashton continued. “Twenty years ago the rural areas didn’t look anything like they look like now.”

 

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