The regional district’s “antiquated” emergency radio system continues to cause concern for local fire officials, but an upgrade is in the works.
Last month heavy snowfall downed two power poles on Mount Kobau, where the communication tower is located. Auxiliary power, generated by fuel and batteries, kicked in for four days until reserves were exhausted. This resulted in the fire dispatch radio repeater going offline, meaning some regional fire departments were without their primary method of communication for days.
This occurred in Oliver, where fire officials had to rely on phones to manage fire protection services. Chief Dan Skaros told the media that these types of glitches in the system are “dangerous and inefficient.”
Skaros previously voiced his opposition to the RDOS switching fire dispatch services from Penticton to Kelowna last year. He noted that rural fire departments have experienced recurring problems since the new, cheaper contract with Kelowna.
When Penticton was dispatching, they had the ability to bypass Mount Kobau. Some rural fire chiefs, including Skaros, lauded the previous back-up system as better than what is currently in place.
Last week the regional district said electrical power to its communication tower on Mount Kobau may not be restored until this spring.
“The message we have received from Fortis is that work to repair electrical lines on Mount Kobau may not begin for safety reasons until after the winter season,” said Dale Kronebusch, the regional district’s emergency service supervisor.
He noted they are taking additional steps to safeguard other power sources at the tower’s site to provide continued and uninterrupted service for the repeater. This includes contingency plans to increase battery back-up capacity and ensure a back-up generator is available for the site generator that will now function as the primary power source for the tower.
Kronebusch added a new alerting system is also being installed at the site that will provide direct warning to the regional district immediately upon the primary generator’s failure.
“At no time were RDOS residents in danger of not having fire coverage (during the outage),” said Kronebusch. “We build redundancies into the system to deal with such potentialities and in this case the dispatch centre in Kelowna was able to contact fire departments using telephones.”
According to district officials, the cheaper dispatch contract with Kelowna (a savings of $1.8 million) will cover the cost of replacing the 20-year-old antiquated emergency system.
The district’s 2013 operating budget includes $1.6 million in funding to complete work recommended by a public safety communications consultant last November. The consultant said the district was “lucky” that this old system didn’t result in a communication catastrophe.
Regional district chairman Dan Ashton said they would be facing this upgrading cost whether they moved dispatching services to Kelowna or not.
“The regional district is aware of the deteriorating condition of our emergency radio system and is taking prudent steps to correct the situation.”
Oliver Mayor Ron Hovanes said the incident on Mount Kobau was unusual, but the Town has been told that fuel is being supplied to the generator and emergency service is not being compromised.
“It is interesting to note that when the system went down it was existing phone systems they relied on.”
Regarding the $1.6 million upgrade, the mayor said the regional district should explore all possible technology.