These firefighters from Esquimalt (along with four CRD other communities) will now receive dispatch directions from Surrey rather than Saanich. Kristyn Anthony/VICTORIA NEWS

CRD communities pull the plug on Saanich fire dispatch

Saanich Mayor Richard Atwell says Saanich stands to lose money, but the region stands to lose cohesion, if five communities go through with their plans to receive fire dispatch from the Lower Mainland.

Atwell said Colwood, Esquimalt, View Royal, North Saanich and Sidney are sacrificing long-term gains by contracting fire dispatch service with Surrey, one of the largest dispatch centres in the province, serving 32 other communities.

The five communities have been contracting dispatch service through Saanich for years, but started searching for alternatives late last year after Saanich announced it plans to nearly double its service charge, citing concern over its own budget and prior investments into its fire dispatch centre.

The five communities have passed a joint resolution to contract with Surrey, whose annual fees for the five communities would range from $44,000 (North Saanich) to $103,400 (Colwood) for 2018. Saanich’s rate for the five communities range from $91,200 (North Saanich) to $196,200 (Esquimalt).

Surrey’s charge for the five Island communities would rise over the coming years, but remain below Saanich’s rates. Consider the figures. In 2022, Esquimalt would pay Saanich $219,100, Surrey $107,711. Overall, the total difference between Saanich and Surrey would be more than $1.5 million over five years.

“This is a significant cost saving for our community and the others of the region that are supporting this direction,” said Mayor Barb Desjardins earlier this week.

But her Saanich colleague questions this argument, while signalling room for future discussions.

“I understood the costs are an issue, but we have to look at this issue,” said Atwell.

Citing consultants, Atwell said the region needs a single regional dispatch centre based on Vancouver Island. “If the differences are in the costs, let’s discuss that.”

By contracting with a providers on the Lower Mainland, the five Island communities are creating administrative divisions.

The five communities currently also lack connection to the Capital Region Emergency Services Telecommunications (CREST) system. It links emergency responders through the region.

Esquimalt staff said Surrey fire dispatch can connect to the CREST system with total costs of around $175,000.

Officials from the five communities have publicly stated that they have no concerns about being able to connect to CREST, adding that future savings would offset current transition costs.

But Atwell said the five communities are setting themselves up for higher cost in the future. “Any short term financial gains are going to be offset by having disparate services that will be challenged to provide mutual aid between existing fire stations within the CRD,” said Atwell.

By virtue of its location, Saanich has the ability to dispatch from one community into another community under mutual-aid agreements, said Atwell. This ability could disappear in the future, he said. “It becomes a safety issue.

It could also repercussions for the regional fire dispatch centre that Saanich and Victoria had been discussing.

Saanich and Victoria last year announced an agreement in principle to create a “regional” fire dispatch centre under a corporate ownership structure that would eventually add other shareholders, but Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps has recently distanced herself from the idea.

Notably, Saanich council Monday will consider an agreement to extend the existing temporary agreement between Saanich and the quintet of departing communities until April 30, 2018. The agreement was set to run out on March 31, 2018.

According to a Saanich staff, Sidney had requested an extension of the agreement to June 30, 2018 to facilitate the timeline of the transition. Saanich in return offered Sidney and the other communities a month extension to April 30, 2018.

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