Dean Fortin

Victoria mayor pushes for regional 911 system

“The current system just seems inadequate. Public safety, immediate response needs to be one of our top priorities.” – Mayor Dean Fortin

As Victoria’s mayor promotes the need for a regional 911 call centre, a state-of-the-art facility in Saanich with room for expansion is being left out of the conversation.

Last week, Victoria Mayor Dean Fortin presented data to a Capital Regional District committee that shows the region suffers from a patchwork 911 system, where some residents wait minutes before reaching local emergency services.

“The current system just seems inadequate,” Fortin said. “Public safety, immediate response needs to be one of our top priorities.”

Costs aren’t yet clear, but VicPD and West Shore RCMP are exploring the benefits of moving Victoria’s 911 dispatch to a facility in Langford. Not included in that discussion is Saanich, which spent $600,000 in 2008 for a purpose-built, three-storey 911 dispatch centre that meets provincial earthquake standards and is backed up by Lower Mainland services.

The facility already dispatches police calls for Saanich and Oak Bay, and fire calls for Saanich, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Sidney, Central Saanich and North Saanich.

View Royal and Colwood fire departments joined Saanich dispatch in May 2012 after cutting ties with Langford, citing better communication system redundancies and security of the purpose-built building.”

“Our door’s open,” said Saanich Mayor Frank Leonard. “The ground floor is used as an emergency operation centre, but we could convert it to a third floor of dispatch if we needed to. The technology is very, very easy and the space to co-locate people is easy, too.”

Part of Victoria’s motivation in relocating its 911 services is a need to upgrade dated technology and infrastructure, Fortin said. But when asked about the possibility of contracting out 911 services to Saanich, Fortin questioned Leonard’s absence from the  CRD working committee.

“There’s always an extra seat at the working committee table,” he said.

Leonard said Saanich chose not to join the committee because it already has what it needs.

“We’re part of the standing committee that deals with regional dispatch. But when Victoria and Langford wanted to work on creating a new dispatch centre, we didn’t need to be a part of that discussion because we’ve got one,” Leonard said.

Lower Mainland municipalities began consolidating emergency communications in the wake of San Fransisco’s 1989 earthquake and the 1994 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver.

E-Comm now serves 14 police and 18 fire departments throughout Metro Vancouver, the Sunshine Coast and up the Sea-to-Sky highway to Lillooet. Burnaby council signed on to the service in October and expects to save $100,000 annually by closing its city-run dispatch.

“I think this issue needs to reach out beyond local government responsibility, it needs to be a provincial government responsibility to provide a framework for that life-saving service,” said Dave Hodgins, an Esquimalt councillor and former B.C. fire commissioner. “It’s way beyond regional responsibilities. It’s life safety.”

Hodgins said E-Comm is a “great model,” and stressed any province-wide system ideally would be run by private contractors.

“Anytime you’re able to streamline the process and reduce the number of contact points, it reduces that risk of error,” he said.

Fortin said he’s still open to exploring all ideas for a regional emergency dispatch centre regardless of municipal boundaries. CRD staff are also developing an implementation strategy for a unified regional 911 centre.

“Clearly, the future holds some sort of integrated response. Whether that’s five or 20 years from now, it’s something we need to work forward towards. The weaknesses in the systems have been highlighted from the Lee case in Oak Bay and others. Our first consideration has to be about public safety, and we’ll worry about borders after that.”

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