When a Victoria police officer radios for backup from Esquimalt, a five second delay can feel like forever.
Long delays through the regional emergency communications system are rare, but dead air remains enough of a problem in pockets of Esquimalt to demand a new transmission site in the township.
Police and other users have immediate radio communication about 99.55 per cent of the time, according to a CREST data. A recent Planetworks consultant study indicated that overall, the system is working well, but has experienced call delays of more than five seconds due to heavy congestion.
“In Esquimalt there are areas were coverage isn’t as good as officers would like,” said Gord Horth, general manger of Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications (CREST).
“Officers need immediate access. If they don’t get that immediate access, the average queue is 1.2 seconds during busy times, but we have instances of three or four seconds,” Horth said. “In an emergency, counting one, two, three, four can be significant. A peak times you can get delays and we want to minimize those delays.”
Victoria police Const. Mike Russell said the Planetworks report confirms problems officers have been struggling with for years – radio interference and other technical hang-ups with the system.
“There are still issues in Esquimalt and James Bay, but we are encouraged by the (Planetworks) independent report. It validates concerns we’ve been having for years now,” Russell said. “We are encouraged CREST accepts the report and is moving forward.”
Complaints with the CREST system have ebbed since the days when police and firefighters opted to use cellphones in the face of CREST dead zones and spotty radio coverage.
CREST board chair Gordie Logan, a Colwood councillor, said the agency is continually trying to improve service in the downtown core where tall buildings and deep parking garages can kill the signal.
“When tall buildings go up, it distorts the signal, but you don’t know (the extent) until you do testing,” he noted. “There are ongoing (CREST) infrastructure upgrades in the downtown core. It won’t ever end.”
Building a transmission site in Esquimalt, and securing more frequencies for the system, are the top priorities of the agency this year. It also plans to upgrade transmission sites to improve reliability in James Bay, Saanich, Oak Bay and the West Shore.
“Complaints have dropped off compared to what they used to be. We are still working with the Victoria police to identify and address specific areas,” Logan said.
“CREST had issues in the early days, but the concept is sound,” Horth noted. ”There is always room to improve and that is the path we are on.”
Anther key task this year is convincing Industry Canada to release more radio frequencies for the system. Now serving 40 emergency agencies in the Capital Region, CREST is reaching its capacity for radio traffic, “has a limited ability to grow” and is justified in requesting five more transmission channels, Planetworks’ report said.
Horth noted that the system is working with the same frequencies as 10 years ago and transmits 8.4 million calls per year.
At the same time, the CREST board is starting to look at next generation technology to replace the existing $10.6 million system. Planetworks suggested a new system could be phased in as debt on the current system is paid out over the next three to five years.
“The system is 10 years old. We expect to replace the system in three or four years,” Logan said. “We’ll be looking at different technologies and planning how to finance that. We’ll have borrowing room when we retire the debt.”