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Cities push for compensation after fire dispatch outsourced to Vancouver Island

Dawson Creek and Fort St. John ask to be 'kept whole' for expenditures on fire dispatch personnel and equipment after contentious vote to outsource service
Fire crews responded to more than a dozen calls after transmission issues left many in Dawson Creek without power in September 2016. Dawson Creek and Fort St. John say they should be 'made whole' after regional fire dispatching services were moved to Vancouver Island this fall.

Dawson Creek and Fort St. John say they should be “kept whole” for money spent on fire dispatch equipment and personnel after the Peace River Regional District opted to outsource those services to Vancouver Island. 

On Jan. 12, the region voted to confirm a decision to sign a contract with North Island 9-1-1 for fire dispatching services. The Vancouver Island-based company is set to take over fire dispatching in the Peace Region this fall. 

The decision has proved controversial. Some worry that having firefighters dispatched from a city outside the region will lead to increased response times and put lives and property at risk. Others criticized the board for making the decision in a closed meeting without public consultation. 

It has also created issues for Fort St. John and Dawson Creek, which have their own dispatch services. 

On Jan. 26, Fort St. John Mayor Lori Ackerman said the city wanted to be made “whole” for its investments in personnel and equipment. 

The city entered a proposal to take over fire dispatch, but was underbid by North Island 911

“Being kept whole is about looking after the soft infrastructure (personnel) as well as the hard infrastructure we invested in to provide that service,” she said.  

Ackerman argued the city kept the regional district’s tax-base “whole” for five years after a recent extension of Fort St. John’s boundaries.  

Dawson Creek Mayor Dale Bumstead said that while he understood the desire to save money, he was frustrated about lost revenue to the city.  

Dawson Creek considered bidding on the contract, but stepped aside over concerns about costs and liability, he said.

“We were obviously concerned about the impact of a couple hundred thousands dollars in lost revenue to our community,” he said, saying that could force cuts or tax hikes. 

Before entering the new contract, Dawson Creek received around $200,000 a year from the PRRD to pay for two firefighters for dispatch services. 

“We have to find a way to keep us whole. We can’t just eat two hundred grand out of the gate, because that’s what it’s going to mean.” 

Taylor Mayor Rob Fraser said some compensation should be paid to cities with investments in fire dispatch personnel and equipment, saying it could back stop dispatching services if North Island opts against signing a new contract after five-year deal expires. 

“If this (service) goes out of our region, it may be lost to our region,” he said. 

A staff report recommends keeping funding in place for the Dawson Creek and Fort St. John fire departments through Jan. 26, 2018 to give the cities time to budget for the new contracts. On Thursday, the board ordered staff to prepare a report on how the region’s two largest cities could be kept whole.  

“What is whole? What’s reasonable?” Chief Administrative Officer Chris Cvik said, saying staff would present options for how the municipalities might be compensated. 

Representatives from Fort St. John, Tumbler Ridge, Taylor, and Pouce Coupe voted against going with North Island. 

A rocky transition

The PRRD's move to switch emergency answering services in the region follows recommendations Pomax consultants made in 2015 to find cost efficiencies in primary 911 answering services, and to consider contracting a fire dispatch provider with full-time dispatchers.

The regional district has already approved moving primary 911 answering services to Vancouver-based E-Comm, which was the only company to respond to a request for proposals last year. That service will handle initial 911 calls that are then transferred to fire, police, or ambulance dispatch services depending on the nature of the call.

E-Comm will take over initial 911 calls from Prince George RCMP, who currently forward fire calls to either the Fort St. John or Dawson Creek fire departments, which manage dispatch for 11 fire departments in their respective regions. The PRRD anticipates savings of $1.56 million over five years on that contract, expected to take effect later this year.

Ironing out the details 

On Thursday, the board voted to pre-approve $4,000 of the North Island contract to pay for three representatives from the company to meet with local fire officials.  

The aim of the meeting is to address “operational questions” about how dispatching will work under the new system. 

The money will come out of North Island’s five-year $635,477 contract. 

—with files from Matt Preprost

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