Deputy fire chief Stephen Hanna and fire chief Michael Burgess stand with Saanich Fire Department’s new fire engine in May 2016. Local officials are still assessing the effects of five communities leaving Saanich’s fire dispatch system. Travis Paterson/News Staff

Saanich makes appeal for regional fire dispatch system

Five CRD communities drop Saanich service in favour of Surrey

Saanich signalled its willingness to discuss terms with five Greater Victoria communities that announced plans to cancel their current fire dispatch contract with the municipality. At the same time, council urged the quintet to reconsider their pending departure.

Colwood, Esquimalt, View Royal, North Saanich and Sidney announced earlier this month they plan to contract fire dispatch services from Surrey rather than Saanich as per their current agreement, which council extended until April 30. The five communities started to search for alternatives in late 2017, early 2018, after Saanich announced that it would double its charge against the backdrop of financial pressures.

Coun. Susan Brice said she takes no umbrage with the municipalities testing the market. “They have done that, and they have come to some conclusion,” she said. “I’m hoping that with further discussion and further review, these municipalities will decide a regional solution is preferable.”

Surrey’s charge 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). While Surrey’s charge would rise over the coming years, it remains below Saanich’s rates. In 2022, Esquimalt would pay Saanich $219,100, Surrey $107,711. 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 last week.

Coun. Colin Plant said he did not wish to inflame the five communities, but encouraged them to compare and contrast Saanich’s services with the Surrey’s services. “I’m not denigrating them [Surrey], but I think the devil is in the details, and if you are just looking at sticker price, I can find you a $5 iPhone online, but it is not a $5 iPhone.”

If the five communities were to join the Surrey dispatch system, it would have to connect to the Capital Region Emergency Services Telecommunications (CREST) system that links all emergency responders through the region.

Mayor Richard Atwell said the CREST board would have to first approve, then build the necessary infrastructure to link CREST with Surrey.

While it is not technically impossible to have multiple dispatches serving neighbouring municipalities, it would be far more ideal to have a single dispatch centre given the nature of mutual aid, he said.

Mike Burgess, Saanich’s fire chief, said the five communities had not yet formally announced their decision to depart, and suggested that Saanich could improve its cards by offering the communities a longer extension under the lower rates set to rise.

As for the financial impact of losing five client communities, Burgess could not give an definitive answer. “In terms of the impact on the 2018 operating budget of the fire department, it is highly variable,” he said.

Saanich was set to earn about $339,000 from the five communities in 2018. The final financial loss to Saanich in 2018 ultimately depends on how long it takes the five communities to join Surrey’s system, a process that can take six to seven months based on previous experience. “So pro-rate that $339,000 [figure] by the number of months that it took out of 2018 to move them to a new provider,” he said.

This figure, of course, would not include the funds that Saanich stands to lose in future years by not having the five communities as clients.

But if Saanich signalled some willingness to compromise, Saanich officials also justified their earlier decision to raise its dispatch fees.

Citing consultants, Burgess said Saanich had been subsidizing the other communities.

Paul Thorkelsson, Saanich’s chief administrative officer, said Saanich raised its fees to “equitably and appropriately” spread costs. “It’s purely operational,” he said.

Saanich, he said, did not raise its fees to recover its initial investment, which Saanich made with the goal of developing a regional approach, he said. “There is no attempt, nor in our view, an opportunity to recoup those costs,” he said.

Saanich remains fully committed to finding a regional solution and has worked with CRD staff, providing them with financial models that would likely benefit all communities, he said.

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