Dispatch costs carry a shock

Nine local governments in southern B.C. have decided to look elsewhere for a better deal on their 911 answering service

After receiving an eye-popping cost estimate from the RCMP, nine local governments in southern B.C. have decided to look elsewhere for a better deal on their 911 answering service.

When the region’s residents dial 911, operators in Kelowna answer the call, then transfer it to dedicated police, fire and ambulance dispatchers elsewhere.

The 12 operators are employees of the Central Okanagan Regional District, which administers the 911 answering service for itself and eight other regional districts in the Southern Interior.

In March 2011, CORD staff told the board that because the operators work out of the RCMP’s dispatch building in Kelowna, it could probably cut costs by having them become RCMP employees and then paying the Mounties to administer the entire service. That arrangement would have also cleared up issues with CORD supervising the operators, who essentially report to the RCMP.

Last July, however, the RCMP finally provided a cost estimate that would have seen the price of each operator balloon by 42 per cent to $126,000 per year, due to employee gains made under the new policing contract with the B.C. government.

As it stands, the total cost for 911 operators for all members of the CORD group will rise 13 per cent to $1.7 million in 2013, and the share for the Penticton-based Regional District of Okanagan-Similkameen will climb 34 per cent to $220,000. All told, the total cost of 911 service will rise 20 per cent to $565,000 in 2013. The City of Penticton receives its 911 service through the RDOS.

RDOS board chair Dan Ashton said all member governments of the 911 group are “irritated” enough by the RCMP contract increases that they’ve decided to explore other options.

“We just signed a police contract, then all this stuff starts coming through… for expansions and pensions and everything else,” he said.

Ashton, also the mayor of the Penticton, said it was a similar story when the cost to the city for general police service spiked last year by $500,000.

“It came right out of the blue and it was a scramble (to find the money) here in Penticton,” he said.

CORD has now received permission from the other members of the 911 group to spend $15,000 to hire a consultant to help it through the process of putting the answering service out to tender. Paul Macklem, the chief administrative officer for CORD, said there should be plenty of interest.

In the Lower Mainland alone there are two viable contenders, including E-Comm, which is owned by a consortium of local governments and provides dispatch service for 30 police and fire departments there, as well as the City of Surrey, which offers service to 32 B.C. communities. The Kelowna Fire Department, which handles regional fire dispatch, might also be interested.

Macklem acknowledged the growing uncertainty and cost of the 911 answering service has been a challenge for CORD’s eight partners, but he hopes the group stays together.

“I don’t think anybody is motivated to do this alone. How do you do that, setting up a whole 911 operation? It’s not simple,” he said. “And I’d find it hard to believe there’s economies of scale doing it yourself.”