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Council hits pause on 911 dispatch decision

Council will gather more information before deciding whether or not to contract out the city's fire dispatch service.
1805 911 dispatch file CC
FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert city council postponed a decision on Monday on whether to contract out St. Albert’s 911 fire dispatch service in the aim of gathering more information. 

The decision followed a presentation of a 911 dispatch delivery model review from accounting firm MNP, which councillors said left some details — such as comparisons among other municipalities, and whether other models would benefit the city more — up in the air. Council ultimately voted to return to considering the service adjustment at a future council meeting, adding a deadline to submit additional questions to City administration and MNP of May 25, 2022. 

The MNP report — prompted by the City’s Ernst and Young operational and fiscal review — looked at St. Albert’s existing emergency dispatch system and explored alternate models of service delivery. MNP ultimately recommended St. Albert contract out its local fire dispatch, a move the report said would provide the City with ongoing net annual operating savings of about $340,000.

The report also described one-time capital costs savings of about $1 million — funds needed to acquire next-generation 911 technology now required by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC). The deadline for decommissioning the fire dispatch’s existing system is March 4, 2025. 

Currently, St. Albert’s 911 calls go to the dispatch centre at the St. Albert RCMP detachment on Boudreau Road. Fire calls are then transferred to a dispatch at Fire Hall #3, with ambulance calls going to Alberta Health Services (AHS).

Options the MNP review explored included amalgamating the RCMP and fire dispatch services; contracting out some or all of the services; maintaining services as they are; and selling St. Albert’s services to other municipalities. 

Fire experts raise concerns

Council members also heard two presentations from fire operations experts opposing MNP’s recommendation.  

Greg Harvey, president of St. Albert Fire Services Local 2130, said contracting out the service would be a “disaster in the making.”

“An outsourced fire dispatcher doesn’t know our community like St. Albert fire dispatchers,” Harvey told council, adding that local callers are better able to direct firefighters to emergencies through their local knowledge. 

Harvey spoke in favour of the report’s amalgamation option, which he argued “could result in even higher levels of customer service.” 

In this option, St. Albert’s fire dispatch would move to the RCMP dispatch, a move that would likely require an expansion of the current space. 

Harvey highlighted that the report said amalgamation would cost $223,500 more than the recommended option of contracting out, which he noted is a fraction of the City’s emergency services budget. According to St. Albert’s 2022 budget, the City’s net budget for emergency services this year is $31.776 million.

“Is a loss of local control over dispatch and potential safety detriments worth a small amount of savings?” Harvey asked. 

Bradley Hoekstra — a St. Albert resident, former fire services administrator, and former fire ground incident commander — also spoke in opposition to cutting the fire dispatch. Hoekstra said he understands the City’s budget constraints, but ultimately argued local dispatchers are integral to maintaining high safety standards. 

“Laying off four people who have chosen dispatch services as a career cannot be taken lightly,” Hoekstra said, referring to the positions that would be cut from Fire Hall #3 should council support the report recommendation. 

Outstanding questions 

Councillors ultimately voted unanimously to return to the debate on contracting out fire dispatch after key questions surrounding the MNP report are answered. 

Mayor Cathy Heron said she would like to see a more comprehensive list of cities in MNP’s environmental scan, such as Airdrie and Medicine Hat. Examples of comparisons MNP listed included Grande Prairie, Lethbridge, and Parkland County. 

As for these listed cities, Heron noted that some aspects of their emergency dispatch branches seemed as though they had been left off the list, such as Edmonton’s fire dispatch. 

“It looks like St. Albert is doing way more than other communities,” Heron said, referring to the volume of services the report listed within the city. “That’s because it’s not reported in a consistent fashion on just that one page.”

Other questions council posed related to whether the City had a contractor in mind for the fire dispatch. 

David Thorne, business development leader for MNP, told council that no contractor has been pinpointed. 

Thorne said the savings MNP calculated in options to contract out were “general numbers” the firm received from other municipalities. If council decided to contract the dispatch, the City would pursue a contractor through a request for proposals (RFP). 

Coun. Sheena Hughes said that without a contractor secured, the ultimate saving potential of contracting out fire dispatch is unclear. 

Additionally, Hughes argued the uncertainty around the contractor brings up questions around the rankings that ultimately led to MNP’s recommendation. 

The review ranked all options based on the customer impact, financial impact, technology investments, impact to employees, and operational impacts. Customer impact and financial impact metrics were both weighted the highest at 35 per cent. 

Hughes noted customer impact could vary based on the quality of the dispatcher the City contracts. Thorne said the rankings were a “subjective” approach based on the information MNP had gathered. 

“It’s a little uncomfortable for me thinking everything’s subjective,” Hughes said. “This is a pretty major decision.”

Regionalization 

In addition to posing questions about amalgamated and contracted service models, some council members voiced interest in maintaining St. Albert’s emergency communications services and selling them to other municipalities. 

Thorne said that MNP’s research suggests selling dispatch services would be “more of a public service” than an investment tool due to low potential returns. Further, customers might be few and far between. 

“There wasn’t a lot of appetite in the market right now for other municipalities looking for a new service provider,” Thorne said. 

Heron said it might be worth a conversation with St. Albert’s neighbours about potentially regionalizing dispatch services, naming Parkland and Strathcona County. 

“It doesn't need to be cherry picking and stealing clients, it could be talking about co-operation and regionalizing of an important service for the region and our residents,” Heron said. 

Council voted to return to the decision on the city’s 911 dispatch delivery model at a later date determined by a future agenda planning session. 


Rachel Narvey

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