While a new province-wide emergency radio system is free to use, municipalities are finding it’s just too much for them to handle financially.
Last week, the provincial government finally announced the official launch of the Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System (AFRRCS), a project that has been in the works for the past eight years. The system is a network for two-radio communication for municipal, provincial, federal and First Nation emergency response agencies that will formally come online on Friday, July 1.
A total of 332 radio towers are being placed strategically around Alberta, with just four left to be completed by the end of this summer, at an overall cost of $438 million. The system is free to use – the province will be covering the maintenance and operation – though municipalities will be responsible for purchasing the radios and other equipment to connect with the system.
And right now, for a lot of communities, the cost is far in excess of what seems reasonable.
Ponoka Fire Department chief Jamie Wilkinson explained they are presently evaluating the costs and benefits of AFRRCS.
“It’s going to be expensive and we are currently awaiting a quote,” he said in an interview last week.
“It’s a fantastic system that links all emergency services. However, before making a big investment such as this, we have to make sure the system is going to work for us.”
Currently, only the RCMP in Alberta as well Alberta Health Services are operating on AFRRCS with the City of Edmonton looking at signing on. Meanwhile, the City of Calgary has already rejected joining, citing the high cost of equipping their emergency services with the radios.
The cost for analog radios – the kind Ponoka Fire and several other emergency services in Alberta presently operate – can range from $200 to $500 per radio, while the new digital/analog radios such as the system recently purchased by Ponoka County for their fire department stands between $800 to $1,200 per radio.
However, the current cost for individual AFRRCS radios start at $3,000 each and can go as high as $8,000.
“It sounds like a great, neat system, but how can you afford to spend that much on a system,” said Ponoka County regional chief Dennis Jones.
“With our dispatch centre upgrading their system to digital and many of our mutual aid partners still operating analog systems plus the high cost for AFRRCS, it was more important for us to be able to communicate with the department we might have to communicate with.”
Jones believes it’s going to take many years for the system to become used by many emergency service providers in the province and only when the number of products and suppliers grow so the price points can come down.
Meanwhile, the provincial government is heralding the success of the system through its use during the recent Fort McMurray wildfire disaster.
During a media event last week, provincial justice and solicitor general minister Kathleen Ganley stated the system was crucial in all of the emergency service personnel along with provincial departments and other staff to communicate and coordinate their efforts.
“This important project will help protect the lives of Albertans, from families to first responders. This province-wide radio system will ensure that the people who keep us safe every day have the communication network they need to respond as quickly and as coordinated as possible,” she stated.