St. Albert fire dispatch is one step closer to be contracted out rather than remaining local after council decided to have the city send out a request for proposals for the service.
The decision on Monday night followed a lengthy debate over the issue, with council raising concerns around cost savings and service levels while they also considered amalgamating the fire dispatch service with the local RCMP dispatch.
In the end council chose to move closer to contracting fire dispatch services to an external provider with a vote of 4-3, with Mayor Cathy Heron, Coun. Wes Brodhead, Coun. Natalie Joly, and Coun. Mike Killick voting in support of the decision.
“Every single person on council and our administration cares deeply about the safety of our residents and the reason this recommendation was put forward is because we are confident that a change of service level is not being contemplated,” Joly said.
This was the second time council considered the motion to outsource the emergency fire dispatch services in the city, previously delaying the decision to get more information, as accounting firm MNP was contracted to look into the merits of the decision.
The move will still have the primary call to 911 in St. Albert be directed to Maloney Place in the city, with local staff manning the lines. From there, the RCMP staff with either send police officers out to a call, or forward the call to Alberta Health Services (AHS) for medical calls. Right now, if the RCMP dispatch receives a call for fire services, they forward the call to the locally-manned fire services dispatch line.
The new format will see the call for fire services redirected to a call centre outside of the city.
St. Albert has an integrated fire and EMS service and sometimes fire staff, who are all trained as paramedics, are responding to health-related calls.
Council contemplated the outsourcing after the Ernst and Young fiscal review recommended the move to save some cash.
Some $340,000 in savings could be realized from switching to an outsourced model, said the report from MNP, however the three councillors who voted against the move weren’t convinced.
Coun. Shelley Biermanski said if she could save money for the city she would be happy to, however the report only proved that the current dispatch system works and the financial estimates put forward in the report don’t show any concrete evidence the city can save the money in the end and they won’t know until after they put out a request for proposals.
Even if the savings are realized, some council members aren’t convinced this is a good trade-off for cash. Coun. Sheena Hughes said the $340,000 would shake out to be $11 annually off tax bills in the city. She said it is tough to choose the savings over having a dispatcher with local knowledge of the area.
“If it was one of your children or somebody you knew and they didn't get medical response in time because they were in an obscure location … I don’t know if they would say it was worth the 94 cents a month [in] savings,” Hughes said.
Local dispatchers will know local landmarks and locations that those from outside of the community might not know, said Coun. Ken MacKay, who spent his career as a first responder.
MacKay said there were plenty of times he could recall situations where a local dispatcher was able to help solve problems or direct first responders to locations because of their intimate local knowledge of the area.
If callers don’t have the exact address of their emergency location, Hughes said, dispatchers may need to rely on landmarks to help direct first responders to those in need.
Hughes, Biermanski, and MacKay tried to get the rest of council to consider amalgamating the RCMP and fire dispatch services, but their motion failed to win support of the other four.
Those in favour of the decision to outsource didn’t think they would see a change in service level delivery and the cost savings would be realized.
“I think we're making this decision significantly more complex than it needs to be,” said Brodhead.
Service levels would not change, Brodhead said, and would allow council to save $340,000 off the tax bills of residents, which is exactly what residents have asked them to do.
St. Albert is one of two cities in Alberta that have local RCMP dispatch for the primary call to 911 — the first person to pick up the phone when a resident calls the emergency number — and Brodhead said if these other communities can have outsourced 911 calls, St. Albert can outsource the fire portion of the calls.
Joly said sending administration and MNP back a second time to explore the option of amalgamation between fire and RCMP wasn’t going to be useful, as council could already predict it would cost a lot of money to renovate the building and the city is in a race against the clock when it comes to making a decision.
“I am not opposed to exploring this option but I am going to vote against this motion because our staff need direction at this point.”
Provincial standards and requirements for 911 dispatch technology will be changing by 2025 and to meet the deadline, the city would need to have their new system in place by October 2024, leaving little time to continue to explore other options.
The new technology coming in will hopefully allow for GPS location tracking of where calls are coming from, making it much easier for first responders to find the emergency, said Killick, who supported the decision.
Heron said the decision was recommended in the Ernst and Young report and it is important for council to consider the cost-saving suggestions laid out in the review.
“It's maybe unfortunate that the first big controversial, touchy [report suggestion] that they brought back is related to dispatch, the health and safety of our community, but if we continue to turn down some of these options for cost savings for our community, that million dollars was a waste of money,” Heron said.
The city will now work on putting out a request for proposals for the outsourced dispatch service, but Heron said if they don’t find a service provider they are happy with, they still have the option to sticking with the status quo.
Council will have a say in what goes into the request for proposals, and they ask providers to ensure service levels by requiring things such as ensuring there is no hold or automated answering service and callers are speaking to a person as soon as possible.
Jennifer Henderson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, St. Albert Gazette