New radios on horizon for emergency responders

The Capital Region’s emergency communications system could be getting a major upgrade that includes new radios for emergency responders.

Local directors will decide Sept. 17 whether to borrow $24.5 million to upgrade the Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications network (CREST), the communications system for more than 50 agencies, including emergency responders in the capital region.

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“CREST has just turned 10 years old and there’s a need to refresh and evergreen the system,” said board chairman Gordie Logan, a Colwood councillor.

Victoria police have long complained of spotty coverage, dead zones and poor reception in the downtown core and underground parking areas. As a result, officers have been forced to patrol in pairs because of concerns that they would not be able to call for backup if radios fail in an emergency.

CREST general manager Gord Horth said the improvements, which will move CREST onto what’s known as a P-25 platform and provide emergency-services personnel with new radios, are past due.

“I don’t know what you’re carrying around in your hip pocket, but you’re probably carrying around a smartphone that you haven’t had for more than two or three years, so it’s kind of the equivalent,” he said, adding that the new radios offer considerably more audio clarity and are more effective in an urban setting.

“It has shorter wavelengths, so it gets into buildings a little better,” he said.

The upgrade would be done in phases, with about $10 million in infrastructure upgrades and replacement of radios used by emergency services in Oak Bay, Saanich, Victoria and Esquimalt next year. That would be followed by a further $14.5 worth of improvements between 2016 and 2018.

Horth said the goal is to introduce a new network in the downtown by 2018, using the 700 MHz spectrum that has become available as analogue TVs have given way to digital. “The federal government has been auctioning off some of the 700 spectrum because it’s kind of the sweet spot for wireless … so the federal government, in their wisdom, followed the American lead and they set aside some of the spectrum for public safety across Canada.”

Created in 2003 at a cost of $17 million, CREST connects all emergency-response personnel — including police, fire and ambulance — in Greater Victoria’s 13 municipalities.

CREST installed $10 million worth of upgrades in 2008 and 2009.

The borrowing would be through the Municipal Finance Authority. As a non-profit corporation, CREST does not need approval from electors to borrow the money.

The average annual increase to the participating agencies for the infrastructure for the entire system is estimated at about two per cent, Logan said. Costs to user agencies with more radios will be higher.

“The timing is right because we’ve got a lot of our borrowing for the existing system coming due. So it’s being paid off,” Logan said.

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