Nanaimo Fire Rescue. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo Fire Rescue. (News Bulletin file photo)

Nanaimo Fire Rescue’s 911 dispatch service to be contracted out next year

Costs to upgrade to digital-platform 911 too high to provide service cost-effectively, city says

Nanaimo Fire Rescue’s 911 dispatch service won’t be calling the new Fire Station No. 1 its new home.

As of June 30, 911 dispatch service for fire emergencies in Nanaimo will be handled by a larger dispatch centre, yet to be determined, and with it will go eight full-time dispatchers’ jobs and four part-time positions.

Nanaimo’s Fire Rescue’s Fire Communications Centre currently serves 27 fire departments in the city, Regional District of Nanaimo and Cowichan Valley Regional District through the Central Island 911 Partnership, which expires June 30.

All 911 centres must be brought up to next-generation 911 technology standards by 2024. The new $20-million downtown fire station has space allocated for the dispatch service and the building will be the communications hub for Nanaimo’s fire operations, but required technology updates for a new digital 911 dispatch system and the support staff to maintain are too expensive to continue with the service in Nanaimo.

“There’s some definite requirements with technology and 911 and what’s changing with the next-generation 911,” said Karen Fry, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief.

Rising operational costs have driven a trend to consolidate 911 dispatch centres in B.C. for more than a decade.

“In 2006 there were 25 fire dispatch centres across the province and now there are less than 10,” Fry said.

Negotiations are underway to set up a contract with a large dispatch centre, but nothing has been finalized yet.

Growth of infrastructure and population on the Island is also becoming harder to keep up with. Nanaimo’s FireComm dispatch centre hasn’t expanded to keep up with that growth and rising numbers of fire service calls. Of the eight full-time dispatchers, just two are on shift at any given time and should a major emergency incident or multiple incidents happen, it’s difficult to bring in backup dispatchers on short notice, the city says. Large dispatch centres have more dispatchers on shift to take up the sudden workload spikes.

Jake Rudolph, chief administrative officer for the City of Nanaimo, said even if the city were to spend the money for the new 911 dispatch system, with larger centres able to offer 911 dispatch service at lower costs and municipalities shopping around for cost savings, there’s no guarantee Nanaimo could remain cost-effective or be able to recover its expenditures.

“The business case on this is pretty convincing that we’re not in a position to be competitive with some of the other service providers … I can tell you that our fire chief knocked on a lot of doors over this whole past year to see what was going on and who might be looking, or in the market to look, and there was very few doors opening, so it was, OK, we’re kind of running into a risk-management problem here,” Rudolph said. “We found ourselves getting into a place where we have to make a difficult decision because we can’t justify a cost per call that’s double, let’s say, the Lower Mainland service providers.”

READ ALSO: New Nanaimo fire hall will adhere to upgraded communication requirements

Rudolph and Fry said the decision was made more difficult because it impacts employees.

International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 905, which represents the FireComm dispatchers, is working with the city to find them new job positions.

“On behalf of the union, we’re certainly doing everything we can to find placements for impacted staff and that process is in play right now,” said Chad Porter, president of IAFF Local 905 and a Nanaimo Fire Rescue lieutenant. “We’ve had several meetings with the employer and will continue to do so to identify opportunities for any staff that may be displaced by this change.”

Porter said the priority is to find positions for the displaced workers within Nanaimo Fire Rescue first and positions elsewhere in the city for those who can’t be placed with the fire department.

“It’s a serious issue. I am so sorry about the impacts that it has on people, but you’ve got to do what’s right,” Rudolph said. “We’re working through that now and I have nothing but confidence that part of it will get resolved one way or the other.”
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