Fire Fighting in Canada

Equipment
The status of interoperability

It has been seven years since the U.S. National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission) released its report suggesting that communications interoperability among first responders must improve. Yet even now, most Canadian fire, police and ambulance organizations still can’t connect to each other all that easily.

September 7, 2011
By Stefan Dubowski

It has been seven years since the U.S. National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (the 9-11 Commission) released its report suggesting that communications interoperability among first responders must improve. Yet even now, most Canadian fire, police and ambulance organizations still can’t connect to each other all that easily.

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Seven years after the 9-11 Commission report, lack of interoperability is still a major concern.


 

What’s the holdup on communications interoperability? Emergency services experts say government priorities and funding challenges get in the way. But they also say that Canada’s slow and steady approach could result in a better system overall.

In 2004, the 9-11 Commission found that communication problems among firefighters, police and other emergency-service organizations made rescue efforts all the more difficult. Since then, first responders across North America have been working to implement technologies and procedures that would facilitate communication among firefighters, police and paramedics.

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But the pace of change is far from fast. “If you were to ask a fire chief anywhere in Ontario outside of a major city, ‘Can you talk to your local police and paramedics?’ I guarantee the answer would be ‘no,’” says Lance Valcour, retired Ottawa police inspector and communications-interoperability consultant.

Government priority is the main stumbling block. Municipal-, provincial- and federal-government organizations seem keen to improve interoperability, but at the end of the day it simply isn’t a top concern.

“Unfortunately it’s not a high priority compared with fire trucks, equipment and training,” says Terry Canning, provincial interoperability co-ordinator for the Province of Nova Scotia and volunteer deputy fire chief for Brookfield, N.S. He points out that for cash-strapped municipalities – already limited in their ability to raise the funds required to buy new interoperable radio systems and now also struggling with the after-effects of the recession – other items take precedence.

Tim Beckett, fire chief in Kitchener, Ont., and president of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs (OAFC), agrees that interoperability doesn’t attract enough government attention.

“The lack of federal and provincial funding for infrastructure has caused municipalities to look at the priorities with their finances,” he says. “The fact that there has not been a widespread need locally, provincially or federally has likely lowered the priority or consideration.”

Another issue is co-ordination. It’s difficult enough to manage the process of researching, acquiring and implementing single-service radio systems. It’s even more difficult to manage that process when multiple stakeholders are involved – not only police, fire and paramedics, but also municipalities, provincial representatives and non-governmental organizations that also play important roles in emergency situations – such as the Salvation Army and the Red Cross. Canning has witnessed the co-ordination conundrum first-hand as Nova Scotia works with New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island on a trans-provincial communication system designed to connect police, fire and paramedics across all three provinces. The request for proposal went out to potential product providers last year, but the deadline for responses has been extended numerous times as the stakeholders hammer out some of the details.

“The way in which the various provinces want to structure paying for it is probably the bigger obstacle,” Canning says, explaining that one province might want to cover the costs from its own provincial coffers, while another might want the municipalities to pay. The funding infrastructure needs to be in place to ensure that the money is available when the bills come due.

But it doesn’t make sense to rush things, Valcour points out. He notes that since communications interoperability touches so many aspects of the emergency-services spectrum – technology, jurisdictional issues, funding, procedures and others – it’s important for the organizations involved to carefully consider the fundamentals. Which technology should they choose? What’s the best way to ensure the system is used properly? Is training required? Should they co-ordinate with neighbouring jurisdictions, or go it alone? What about trans-national implications – areas in the United States are implementing interoperable communications systems; should Canadian border towns get in touch with stateside representatives?

Valcour says that the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) – which he has led since 2007 – has held numerous workshops and seminars enabling fire officials and other emergency-service leaders to collaborate on strategies and action plans. Earlier this year, CITIG worked alongside provincial, territorial and federal ministers responsible for emergency management as they approved a communications interoperability strategy for Canada and a supporting action plan, covering governance, standards, future communications systems, training and usage.

Meanwhile, various regions across the country are drawing up their own communications-interoperability strategies, aligning the details of their plans with the federal and provincial strategies that CITIG and others have helped to develop over the last four years, Valcour says. Plans underway in Durham Region and Halton Region in Ontario are just two examples, he points out.

Interoperability is becoming a reality in Kitchener, too. “Police and fire both work on the same radio system, and EMS has some of our radios,” Beckett says, adding that the city’s main challenge at this point has to do with operational resources – finding the funds to expand the interoperable capabilities.

For now, “we have interoperation policies relating to command and incident management. We only utilize these on major scenes,” Beckett says.

Major incidents seem to be major catalysts spurring governments to implement interoperable communications systems. Industry observers note that British Columbia and Nova Scotia represent the country’s interoperability elite, further ahead than other areas. In British Columbia, the Stanley Cup riot of 1994 convinced Vancouver’s emergency-service officials that it was time to build a better inter-agency system. In Nova Scotia, forest fires in the 1980s prompted the province to install a tri-service radio platform, and the Swiss Air flight 111 crash in 1998 compelled officials to again consider an even more sophisticated communications system to ensure everyone would be able to connect.

“Typically these things don’t come cheap so they do need a major driver to bring them to the surface,” Canning says.

Valcour, for one, figures the challenges are surmountable – given time. He used to think it would be realistic for every Canadian province, territory and municipality to have an interoperability strategy by 2013, but lately he’s been adding a year or two to that prediction.

“It’s never going to be moving at a pace that I’d like, but it is moving at a pace appropriate to the resources we have available and the way government works,” he says.


Stefan Dubowski is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.


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