West Hants councillors reviewed a $3,500 ask July 12 and opted to hold off funding any studies until they have more information on the subject.
The Brooklyn Fire Department requested the funds so that a study could be conducted to determine if the existing radio tower on their building could be extended to provide better reception for firefighters.
“The background to this is that prior to the Windsor Fire Department withdrawing services, the fire stations and responders in the Southwest Vaughan area, Martock, Mill Section and Windsor Forks, were able to use the Windsor Fire Department radio tower. So they had very good coverage,” explained CAO Cathie Osborne.
“We lost that ability when Windsor Fire withdrew services so they have been using a modified and very unsatisfactory method of trying to communicate with each other.”
The Windsor Fire Department and Municipality of West Hants severed ties in 2015 after a long, messy contract dispute that saw the municipality launch its own fire service.
According to an information report prepared by the chief administrative officer, the original radio communications system in Brooklyn was not designed to reach the outlying areas as they were covered by the WFD.
Now there are “pockets” where volunteer firefighters are unable to adequately communicate with the base station.
Coun. Jennifer Daniels was the first to speak on the subject, asking why the department is not relying more on the TMR towers that are installed and operated by the province. There are already two towers in Brooklyn's coverage area: Ardoise and Vaughan.
“They are there to help fill in the gaps so everything is a little more streamlined and (there's) better communications between emergency service providers. This should address any deficiencies in communication,” said Daniels.
The councillor said that the study not only costs money, but there could be additional costs depending on what the study concludes and then possibly maintenance fees. She wanted council to hold off on making a decision and suggested inviting representatives from Public Safety and Field Communications to come in and discuss what the TMR towers could do for their fire service.
Other councillors were on board with waiting as well.
“The explanation where the issue arose seems to be tied to our separation – or whatever you want to call it — from the Windsor Fire Department,” said Coun. Tanya Leopold. “I'd be more inclined to support a motion to defer it to the next budget to give that restructuring committee time to repair the relations or find out ways to work together.”
It was a sentiment Coun. Randy Hussey shared as well.
“It seems like every time we come to council, the Brooklyn Fire Department is asking for money,” said Hussey.
“I think they could probably find this within their budget and if not, then we should wait — and we should wait until the new fire station is built; we should wait until we know exactly what communications we need throughout the whole area and where we can cost save instead of one station going their own way,” he added.
At their last council meeting, which was in July, council approved spending $30,000 for the Brooklyn Fire Department to equip the new substation in Three Mile Plains. The money was for miscellaneous equipment, which included a Smart television, chairs and an air compressor.
Fire Chief Scott Burgess, of the Windsor Fire Department, said they would be more than willing to discuss the topic with West Hants staff but haven't been approached to do so as of Sept. 21.
“Even though our coverage area has lessened, we still utilize that high end antenna location because if we're (doing) mutual aid in the outlying areas, we can still communicate with our base. We can hit that repeater for miles and miles away because it's still 600-and-some feet above sea level,” said Burgess.
The fire chief said they experienced areas that had limited to no coverage while serving the county decades earlier and worked on improving the system until their coverage ceased.
“We had pockets of no coverage in some of those valleys on Highway 14 and out on the 101 down in Ellershouse — so we knew it, we identified it and we started working on a plan to better that. We started doing testing ourselves. We worked with MT&T at the time,” recalled Burgess in an interview.
“We forged a deal with them to be on that Martock cell tower early on.”
For the few stubborn rural areas where reception was spotty, the WFD purchased pager chargers with an antenna.
“We implemented a few of those for the iffy spots. It allowed those firefighters to get the pages reliably,” he said.
The WFD still use the repeater tower in Martock. In addition to this, they have a tower in Windsor. In 2014/15, the fire department partnered with Bell Aliant to attach their upgraded antenna and receptors to the telecom company's 135-metre-tall cell tower that was constructed adjacent to the Walter B. Stephens town hall building. The two partnerships not only resulted in long-term cost-savings but improved radio communications, he said.
“By working with these companies, we've probably saved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the end,” said Burgess, noting it would have cost close to $100,000 to install the original tower in Martock and between $30,000-$50,000 for the one in downtown Windsor.
Burgess said the WFD also still houses a backup radio and antenna for Brooklyn, which they could still use in an emergency.
“They can use it anytime for back up paging... It's been there since the original tower, when we started dispatching them back in the early 1990s,” Burgess said.