CRD divided over fire dispatch, agrees to investigate single site option

‘Saanich taxpayers have been subsidizing fire dispatch in the region for several years’

After a heated debate during the board meeting Wednesday (Dec. 13), the Capital Regional District (CRD) will review establishing a single regional fire dispatch centre — much to the chagrin of Saanich.

Oak Bay Mayor Nils Jensen put forward the suggestion the CRD look at the feasibility and hurdles associated with a regional dispatch centre for 911, fire and police.

“This is what’s been done in Vancouver, very successfully for quite a number of years now. There’s no reason I can see why we shouldn’t at the very least study the possibility,” Jensen said. “It creates a much higher level of service generally.”

He said he envisions a state-of-the-art facility such as the E-Comm centre in Vancouver. “They have real time analytics and can handle a high volume of calls,” he said. “They do dispatch for about 80 per cent of the province.”

The timing of his suggestion was twofold. Dispatch for smaller rural communities through Langford is currently under review and Saanich, which provides dispatch to Oak Bay and other communities, recently revisited costs associated with the service, a process that began after a financial review in 2015.

“It was is a good opportunity to look at the issue in a wider regional context,” Jensen said.

Esquimalt Fire Rescue already indicated it will shop around once its contract with Saanich expires at the end of March 2018 as Saanich plans to raise its fees by 100 per cent over three years.

Saanich cited concerns during the CRD meeting that they’ve “sunk costs” into the current call centre, which also serves other communities in the region. The public heard at the Saanich council meeting Monday (Dec. 11), that Saanich has spent about $2.5 million towards its dispatch centre and that the site is scalable if clients leave, or join.

This said, the push for a regional system caused an audible level of frustration among Saanich politicians.

“Saanich taxpayers have been subsidizing fire dispatch in the region for several years including the cost of the disaster-ready hosting facility which has not been passed onto our client municipalities,” said Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell.

A new approach might mean losses. “If a new regional fire dispatch centre is built at this time, it will duplicate the eComm-based service we now provide,” he said. “This will increase costs for everyone involved.”

Jensen acknowledged this point. “One of the things we can look at down the road is making some sort of compensation or re-using their equipment,” he said.

But Atwell sounds unconvinced. “The best outcome for local residents of all municipalities is to continue to use the Saanich service until it reaches end of life,” he said. “At that point in time it will may justify consolidating all the facilities into one building.”

Jensen suggests Victoria and Saanich came up with a plan to create a corporation and hit local governments with a “take-it-or-leave-it approach.”

“I don’t think that’s the best approach to regional cooperation, where two communities dictate to the others,” Jensen said. “We do have an obligation at the CRD table to approach all of the issues with our regional hat on, what’s good for the whole of the community.”

Atwell said the push for a regional centre “complicates” plans for the regional centre. Saanich, he said, has signed an agreement in principle with Victoria to combine its fire dispatch service. Yet Atwell said Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps is “simultaneously promoting the duplication of infrastructure at CRD that already exists within Saanich.”

View Royal Mayor David Screech said it makes “perfect sense” to move towards a regional model as it would reduce the overall cost to taxpayers.

“I think it’s something that all of us should be striving to make happen,” he said. “The one key benefit would be that if we can get all the region on the same service, we can ensure that that same high level of service is being used for all municipalities and I think there’s also significant cost savings.”

The CRD board agreed to have staff bring back a report in early 2018 to look at the feasibility of housing fire, police and 911. 

“Police have been able to work this out there’s no reason why fire can’t do the same,” Jensen said.

A South Island Dispatch Centre in Saanich is set to open in 2019.

While he notes that might require taking into account the current Saanich investments, and costs could certainly go up, there would be discussion and a measure of control and input.

“That’s why a regional model is much preferable in my view,” he said.

Atwell disagrees.
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