Current Prescott-Russell firefighters radio system ‘completely obsolete’

Broken conversations, obsolete equipment and lack of coverage: these are three downfalls of the current communication system connecting Prescott-Russell fire departments.

Tobias Hovey is the fire chief for The Nation municipality. He says what was a great system 20 years ago, is “just not up to snuff” today.

Hovey describes the current system as a single pipe that relays back to dispatch in Hawkesbury. That pipe can often get clogged by fire departments talking over each other depending on whose signal is strongest, so only bits and pieces of conversations get through.

Essentially, the entire western portion of Prescott-Russell is serviced through this pipe. The signal is relayed to the water tower in St-Isidore, which then transmits out again to different areas.

Fire stations across county

“Right now, we have one place where if it does fail, most of our county goes black,” says Hovey. In building the new system, he says it would work similarly to cell phone coverage where the signal would hit the nearest tower.

“That’s the kind of system we want to have installed so we can basically drive from one end of the county on any call and be able to communicate with any station, because we do support our neighbours,” says Hovey. “That’s very important for us.”

He gives the example of firefighters stationed in St-Bernardin that helped with a fire in East Hawkesbury on New Year’s Day. The two stations couldn’t communicate with one another to give updates.

To be clear, it’s not that messages are being relayed through dispatch that’s the problem. In fact, Hovey says that has to be a critical part of the new system.

“We always want to communicate through dispatch because it’s recorded and it also gives another set of ears,” he says. “A Mayday is our worst case scenario, well if we miss it as an instant command, dispatch will catch that.”

Right now, he says, if firefighters are on scene with poor signal, they’ll switch over to a “simplex” channel, which essentially acts as walkie-talkies.

“The problem is we don’t have the redundancy, we don’t have the recording,” says Hovey. “If we miss it, we miss it.”

Three options under review

“The bottom line is we have to start from scratch,” said CAO Stéphane Parisien at the UCPR January 10 Committee of the Whole meeting. “This system that we have in place is completely obsolete and it’s past its end of life already.”  

The UCPR hired Bill Harvey, a radio-frequency engineer from Toronto to help guide the project, at $165 an hour with help of another colleague for $100 an hour.

In an email, Parisien said it was hard to say how many hours the engineer and his colleague will put in the project, whose tasks include writing and evaluating the future request for proposal.

During the meeting, Parisien went on to say he was looking at three options: leasing the network from a provider, asking a supplier to build the network and then leasing to own, or building the towers and network outright.

The anticipated timeline is for council to come to a decision by the end of June, once the RFP comes back, with the new system built for service next year.

Boost in coverage for more safety

For Hovey, that can’t come soon enough.

With the new system the goal is 95/95 coverage—95 per cent of the territory covered 95 per cent of the time.

Right now, “If I had to guess, we’d be lucky if we’re at 60/60,” says Hovey, though he concedes that’s speculative.

Above all, he says the new system will improve safety.

“We’re trying to keep our firefighters safe.”