Kyle Smith

Planned CREST upgrade will sharpen communications

Already good West Shore coverage to be enhanced with new technology

The state-of-the-art equipment may be a few years away yet, but the excitement over going digital is here and now for at least one local fire department.

The announcement last week that the Capital Region Emergency Services Telecommunications (CREST) had been given approval by its shareholders to embark upon an estimated $24.7-million system upgrade was seen as good news by a firefighter who has experienced up close what the new technology can offer emergency responders.

“We’ll definitely benefit from the (upgrade to) digital radio,” said Assistant Chief Greg Chow of the Colwood Fire Department.

He was on the evaluation committee for the new equipment, which will replace the current VHF (very high frequency) analog radio system. Chow was amazed at the quality of the reception, which was tested, among other ways, using extreme external noise.

“We could actually talk and understand somebody really clearly with a chainsaw running in the background,” he said.

Radio clarity and audibility are critical for responders in an emergency and can make the difference in taking the appropriate actions to save lives or property, Chow added.

All West Shore fire departments, police, ambulance, B.C. Transit and other emergency response participants use the CREST system and equipment.

The decision to take the system frequency up to 700 MHz – under a state-of-the-art standard known as P25 –  from the existing 300 MHz frequency available with analog equipment was made to take advantage of new digital technology and further eliminate gaps in coverage. Radio communication gaps encountered by Victoria police officers in downtown Victoria were the most publicized shortfalls of the existing analog system.

Gordie Logan, a Colwood city councillor and chair of the CREST board, said fire departments and West Shore RCMP have been “extremely happy” with the service they’ve been getting from CREST.

“Coverage and reliability have never been an issue on the West Shore,” he said.

As with any technology, however, the system is coming to the end of its useful life, he added.

The new digital system will be rolled out first in the core municipalities of Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt and Oak Bay, Logan said. The additional funding will pay for installation of new transmitters and receivers, convert existing sites and purchase new portable radios compatible with a P25 system.

No decision has been made how to proceed on the West Shore, in terms of the infrastructure required, but at the very least, new radio handsets are in the works for area emergency personnel.

Logan explained that having the regional system at 700 MHz will allow for more flexibility.

“Our biggest challenge over the years was to get additional frequencies,” he said. “With the 700 MHz, it opens a whole new door. We’re able now to redistribute the existing frequencies.”

The actual cost of converting the entire system has yet to be determined, since tenders must be put out for companies to bid on providing the equipment. Logan said shareholders were given a “worst-case scenario” cost estimate, which will translate to a roughly 1.9-per-cent cost increase for taxpayers.

Since it went operational in 2002-03 and brought together 50 different emergency response agencies in Greater Victoria, CREST has created great improvements in the ability of responders to communicate clearly to each other and their dispatchers.

Chow recalled a time before CREST, when Colwood firefighters at Esquimalt Lagoon could have trouble communicating with the local dispatcher in the main hall on Metchosin Road, a short drive away.

“Just to give you an idea of the difference, when we were down at that fire at Otter Point (Sept. 11), we were able to talk to dispatch (in Saanich) quite easily,” he said.

Fast facts

*CREST operates a wide-area emergency radio system that processes a call every four seconds on average.

*CREST users have immediate system access 99.8% of the time. For those that don’t get immediate access, the average call delay is 1.1 seconds. No system in the world has 100% reliability.

*Some 2,500 users put over 7.5 million calls through the CREST system last year.

*CREST’s infrastructure includes: 29 transmit and receive sites, 51 in-vehicle repeaters, 2,345 radios and 78 frequencies.

editor@goldstreamgazette.com

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