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Dispatch dilemma

It must have been an eerie feeling.

April 20, 2012
By Peter Sells

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It must have been an eerie feeling. A colleague was the last one to leave the former Toronto Fire Department dispatch room when the current Toronto Fire Services Communications Centre was opened just a little over 10 years ago. As he turned out the lights and closed the door, he realized that the room had been continuously occupied 24/7 for decades, and he was the last man out. Fire dispatch is something that, perhaps, is taken for granted; someone is in control – there is always a voice on the other end of this radio or telephone . . .  isn’t there?

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Fire chiefs say there is little interoperability among departments in terms of communications, which creates a serious threat to firefighter safety on the fire ground when mutual aid is activated and several fire departments are working together on the same incident. Co-ordination, they say, becomes extremely difficult when you can’t communicate.


 

Business continuity is not something that readily comes to mind in the emergency services: we were here yesterday, we are here today and we will be here tomorrow. We may be forgiven for thinking that business continuity is a concern exclusive to the private sector, but we would be wrong. In part, we would be wrong because we may be confusing business continuity with disaster recovery or emergency management. Those concepts are more closely related to the normal operation of a fire, police or EMS department, but they are only a subset of business continuity. Built on a foundation of standards, policies, guidelines and procedures, business continuity consists of all activities performed daily to maintain service, consistency and recoverability.

We would also be wrong to assume that our organizations, or parts thereof, are not subject to the same life cycle as a private sector business – birth, growth, decay, death.  Just such a reality check hit the Hanover, Ont., Police Service in February 2012. The loss of a dispatch contract for West Grey Police made the continuity of the Hanover Communications Centre financially untenable. When the town’s police services board voted to disband the centre at the end of 2012, it eliminated nine positions (six full time and three part time) and left the remaining customers searching for new service providers. Quoted in the Owen Sound Sun Times, Bob White, Hanover’s deputy mayor and chair of the Hanover Police Services Board, said, “It was a very difficult decision to make, but we were going to be in a position, because of the loss of one of our largest customers and the revenue from them, that we just couldn’t justify staying in business. The expenses were escalating fairly fast and the revenue was declining.”

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Although the Hanover Communications Centre will come to the end of its life cycle shortly after the Mayan calendar does likewise, more than 20 fire departments across Grey, Bruce, Wellington, Huron and Perth counties – as well as two police services – must ensure their business continuity. Fortunately, the board had acted responsibly and all parties have adequate time to react to the change. Hanover Police will contract with the Owen Sound Police Services communications centre beginning in 2013. At present, three communications centres (Owen Sound, Barrie and Tillsonburg) are competing for the stranded fire contracts. Ripley-Huron Fire Chief Doug Martyn expressed concerns about the cost of infrastructure to connect to dispatch centres that are much further away. The fire chiefs of the affected departments will discuss moving to one centre in order to get the best deal. “The more people that go to any one of the three options, the cheaper the rates,” he said.

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In 2009, the Brighton Fire Department in Ontario didn’t have the luxuries of time or choice. The private-sector paging company with which it had contracted made a business decision to get out of the fire-dispatch game, and Brighton Fire had just a few short months to react. The nearby Port Hope Police Service did not have the capacity in its communications centre to take on another fire department. After searching around for another provider among neighbouring emergency services, Brighton Fire eventually contracted with another private paging company about 75 kilometres away in Peterborough, Ont.

Brighton’s decision brings us to the concept of an emergency service’s control over its own processes. The Trent Hills Fire Department, in Ontario’s Northumberland County – the same county as Brighton – contracts with the same Peterborough company. Tim Blake, fire chief of the Campbellford-Seymour station within Trent Hills, explained the pros and cons of using a private sector dispatch service.

“The main problem with private dispatch is consistency; with the low wages, operators come and go quite frequently,” he said “But the operators that have been with the com-pany for several years become accustomed to fire department operations and radio procedures. Overall, our dispatch is and has been reliable and professional for the most part, considering the dollars we are investing.”

The desired alternative for Trent Hills and Brighton would be a Northumberland County fire dispatch centre. The county fire co-ordinator is Cobourg Fire Chief Al Mann. In 2010, Mann asked every municipal council and the county council to endorse a study on a “purpose-built, centralized fire dispatch centre”. At a cost estimated at upwards of $2 million, a new county system would eliminate black holes in fire radio coverage and paging transmissions, address various local difficulties with dispatching fire personnel, and alleviate channel congestion. 

“The system would give fire calls the priority they should have,” said Mann at that time.   When I followed up with him in March 2012, he expressed cautious optimism that a central fire dispatch can be realized in Northumberland County in the near future, although he has no expectations that it will be a dedicated service.

“I expect that if it does happen the service will be provided by Cobourg Police. While the preference would be a dedicated central fire dispatch, realistically it probably won’t happen due to cost. 

“The current situation is not acceptable,” Mann said. “There is little interoperability between the fire departments in terms of communications, which creates a serious threat to firefighter safety on the fire ground when mutual aid is activated and several fire departments are working together on the same incident. Co-ordination of resources becomes extremely difficult when you can’t communicate.”

Blake agrees that a dedicated county fire dispatch centre would eliminate the problems associated with a private-sector provider operating at a distance. 

“With a full-time, dedicated fire dispatch,” he said, “operators would become familiar with each department’s tendencies in radio transmission.” 

However, Blake also pointed out that cost would be a major concern to municipalities, with the addition of full-time wages, benefits, buildings and equipment.

If costs are a concern at the municipal or county levels, would an upper-tier government solution be a viable alternative?

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Why can Canada not institute a system of three emergency numbers – say 911 for police, 912 for fire and 913 for EMS?


 

Generally, policing in Canada is provided by the RCMP or a provincial police force, unless a community has the resources and political will to establish a local police service. EMS is typically handled by each province’s ministry of health, unless a municipality or region establishes an EMS system under the provincial umbrella, with dispatch integrated into a system of regional communication centres. It would seem to be a logical alternative, then, for fire communications in Ontario to be regionalized under a provincial system to provide dispatch service to smaller communities. Such a system would address two of our three concerns: business continuity (since the province is not likely to close up shop and move to Mexico at 3 a.m.); and control (since the people taking the calls would be professional fire communicators). But what about fiscal realities?

New Brunswick already has an integrated radio and dispatch system. The NB 911 Bureau receives calls through seven Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) around the province, and transfers them to the appropriate emergency service (police, fire, ambulance or poison control.)  A plan for a digital upgrade to integrate all three Maritime provinces’ radio systems, which had been announced in May 2010, was scrapped in February on the basis of cost (estimated at more than $100 million). The Canadian Press quoted Christian Couturier, New Brunswick’s chief information officer, saying, “It would be hard to say that cost isn’t a factor, but it’s one factor in amongst many others.’’  Couturier is confident that safety would not be compromised by maintaining the current New Brunswick system. “The system is not going to go away, we’re very committed to make sure it’s maintained,’’ he said, “It’s just not going to transition into this (regional) architecture.’’

Regardless of finances, anything other than fire dispatch directly from the PSAP – for example a police communications centre that answers 911 calls and dispatches firefighters – has another hidden cost. The NFPA 1221 Standard for the Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, defines alarm handling time as the time interval from the receipt of the alarm at the primary PSAP until the beginning of the transmittal of the response information via voice or electronic means to emergency response facilities or the emergency response units in the field.  Alarm handling time consists of alarm transfer time (the time interval from the receipt of the emergency alarm at the PSAP until the alarm is first received at the communication centre), alarm answering time (the time interval that begins when the alarm is received at the communication centre and ends when the alarm is acknowledged at the communication centre), and alarm processing time (the time interval from when the alarm is acknowledged at the communication centre until response information begins to be transmitted). Any system in which the PSAP must transfer a call will incur an alarm transfer time. 

A 2010 study of Toronto Fire Services’ communications system estimated the average transfer time from the Toronto Police 911 centre at 32 seconds, with a 95th percentile of 63 seconds. NFPA 1221 mandates a 95th percentile alarm transfer time of 30 seconds.  So the reality, using the Toronto numbers, is that any system in which calls are transferred to fire dispatch from another PSAP will cause a delay in the initiation of that dispatch, and that delay may be 30 seconds to more than a minute. That delay represents a hidden cost in terms of the potential effectiveness of a fire/rescue response – one further minute for a fire to grow, one further minute for an accident victim to bleed or be without oxygen.

For EMS calls transferred to fire dispatch from an EMS communications centre, the transfer time may be several minutes as the EMS communicators work through the required medical questioning protocols with the caller. Two possible solutions to this extended delay would be fire-based EMS or simultaneous dispatch of fire and EMS for medical responses. In March, Deb Matthews, Ontario’s minister of health and long-term care, announced the launch of the pilots for an early-adopters program, under which fire and EMS will receive notification simultaneously in the event of an emergency call for medical assistance, and will provide seamless delivery of these vital services. EMS operators at these sites will have a real-time view of ambulance locations, allowing them to make more informed decisions about what services are needed. The pilot sites are  Kitchener, Mississauga, Barrie and Guelph. The Ontario government commitment to this program is more than $4.3 million over the next five years.

Even with simultaneous notification of fire and EMS, if the primary PSAP is a 911 centre operated by a police service, there will be an alarm transfer time. In North America, we have become used to our system of calling 911 for any emergency, just as Britons are accustomed to calling 999 and continental Europeans are accustomed to calling 112. There are other systems, with many countries using three separate numbers for police, fire and EMS.  Examples include India (100, 101, 102), Saudi Arabia (999, 998, 997), and Mexico (066, 068, 065). 

So why can Canada not institute a system of three emergency numbers – let’s say 911 for police, 912 for fire and 913 for EMS? If the local EMS is provided by a fire service large enough to maintain its own fire/EMS dispatch centre, then both 912 and 913 would ring through to the same centre. Any fire or EMS calls to 911 could continue to be re-routed as per the current practice, providing service continuity as society adapts to the change. As more fire and EMS calls are diverted from the 911 stream, the removal of the initial call-taking and transfer times from the overall dispatch process would result in firefighters and medics arriving on scene between 30 seconds and 60 seconds sooner. 

Such change may seem drastic, and the cost would not be insignificant, but fire and EMS would have full control over their dispatch processes, and centralized or regionalized governmental ownership would ensure business continuity.


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