FIRE SERVICE DISPATCHING AND COMMUNICATIONS IN NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY. Presentation to Municipal Councils

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1 FIRE SERVICE DISPATCHING AND COMMUNICATIONS IN NORTHUMBERLAND COUNTY Presentation to Municipal Councils 2008 Presented by: Allen Mann, Fire Coordinator County of Northumberland MUTUAL AID

2 The fire service mutual aid program has been around since the 1950s. The concept is simple: To provide or receive assistance in the event of a major emergency in a municipality, community or area, when an incident is of sufficient magnitude that it cannot be safely and effectively handled with the resources of the municipality, community or area in which the incident occurs. The mutual aid plan is a plan, approved by the Office of the Fire Marshal, under which the fire departments that serve the designated area agree to assist each other in the event of an emergency. In order to participate in a mutual aid program there are several conditions a municipality must meet, some of which include: - that the participating fire department must be established and regulated by municipal by-law. - that the fire chief must be confirmed by municipal council. - that council must pass a by-law authorizing the fire department to participate in the mutual aid plan. - that the participating fire department must have adequate resources to handle day-to-day emergencies in its own jurisdiction. - that the minimum requirements of the Occupational Health and Safety Act must be met. - that the participating fire chiefs shall in accordance with principles and policies agree upon radio communication procedures.

3 COMMUNICATIONS History Sometime in the mid 1970s, the municipalities within the County of Northumberland, along with the County of Northumberland, recognized the need for a communications system for fire services within the county. The County purchased and installed a radio repeater with one radio frequency on a County owned tower located in the county forest. Municipalities were responsible for installing radio equipment in their own fire vehicles. Dispatching services were provided by one central service. The system was arguably adequate to meet demands at the time - arguably because the system did not serve the Campbellford area and it provided only marginal service to the Brighton area. Today Since that time, the population of Northumberland County has increased some 20% or more. Call volumes for fire departments in the county have increased some 1,331% for urban areas and 640% for rural areas. Collectively, fire departments in the county answer approximately 3000 calls per year. Fire departments no longer simply respond to fires. Vehicle accidents, both with and without extrication of trapped persons, technical rescue (such as water/ice and confined space), hazardous materials response and emergency medical first response are all now standard levels of service the public has come to expect. Along with that, firefighters provide a number of non-emergency services, an example being the recent Float Your Fanny Down The Ganny weekend in Port Hope. The communications system has also changed. Today, 4 different communications centres dispatch fire departments in the county - 2 are operated by police services, 2 are private companies. Dispatching is done on 4 different radio frequencies. Fire ground communications can be conducted on 6 different frequencies. The Issue The system, quite simply, is no longer adequate. We have outgrown it. If asked, most fire chiefs in the county would probably say that on a daily basis, for most routine calls and provided that there is not a lot of other radio traffic and no other

4 fire departments are using the system, the system works fine. However, municipal fire departments simply do not have the resources at hand to handle every possible emergency on their own all of the time. When a large scale emergency strikes and there are several fire departments responding to multiple calls all at once; or when multiple departments are responding to a mutual aid call (such as the fire in downtown Port Hope last year), the system fails rapidly. There are, on average, 10 mutual aid calls within the county every year. It is not uncommon to have multiple departments responding to multiple calls, especially during busy times of the year, such as grass fire season, winter storms or on long weekends. Dispatchers have trouble getting pages out. If two different dispatch centres are trying to page out two different fire departments at the same time on the same frequency, no one will get the page. On-scene communications often break down, even to the point where firefighter safety can become a concern. Fire ground commanders often have problems communicating with each other or with individual firefighters because of heavy radio traffic. Fire departments can have trouble communicating or they simply can t communicate with each other at all, either because of heavy radio traffic or because they are on different frequencies. The role of the Fire Coordinator during a mutual aid activation is to coordinate resources so that the incident is provided adequate resources and so that those municipalities effected by the incident are adequately protected. This coordination can become extremely difficult and/or impossible if you cannot communicate. There have been occasions where a dispatcher has questioned the authority of the coordinator to call in additional resources, until the fire chief requesting the additional resources could confirm the request. There has also been occasion where additional resources were delayed because the coordinator and the requesting fire chief were unable to communicate with each other. Another where radio traffic was so heavy that the incoming fire department resorted to telephoning manpower to respond rather than paging them. This resulted in a delay of approximately one hour for additional resources to cover a community whose fire department was otherwise committed. That is far too long! Fire departments have, on several occasions, been faced with situations where fire ground commanders have had to walk back and forth from one end to the other of very large and potentially dangerous incidents in order to communicate face to face because radio transmissions failed. Incoming resources have had problems communicating with on scene commanders to even confirm their response or to

5 verify where they were needed. These incidents ranged in nature from transportation incidents to industrial fires to large fires in downtown cores. The Solution The Fire Chiefs in Northumberland County agree that a dedicated central fire dispatch serving all of Northumberland County is the solution. One dispatch centre dedicated to fire could best aid in the coordination of our collective resources in the event of a major incident or during particularly busy periods. Fire departments, while responding to emergencies, could be provided with vital information on services and hazards relating to the subject property. Support for on-scene operations would be provided more efficiently. Not only would emergency services and activities of the fire departments be addressed, but so too could many non-emergency services and requirements. Public inquiries and non-emergency requests for service would be dealt with promptly. Administrative matters relating to other fire service stakeholders would be dealt with more professionally. GIS databases could be effectively utilized in both emergency and non-emergency situations. All calls could be filtered through one central dispatch (currently, there are three centres serving Northumberland County.) Cost A preliminary study of other jurisdictions in the Province indicates annual operating costs ranging anywhere between $3.48 per capita (not including annual costs), to what we are currently paying on average across Northumberland, which is approximately $4.42 (including costs). Discussions with radio service people have suggested that the infrastructure needed for such a dispatch centre could be put into place for an estimated $40,000 to $50,000. These estimates do not include the cost of software for computer-aided dispatch.

6 Action Requested That the Council of the Municipality of Port Hope support a feasibility study conducted by the County of Northumberland to study the possibility of a county wide fire dispatch system. Allen Mann, Fire Coordinator County of Northumberland

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