As freezing rain continued falling late in the morning of Dec. 29 and power lines and trees started to topple, just a single dispatcher was on duty at the Fraser Valley Regional District’s fire dispatch centre.
That prompted a call for help and additional dispatchers quickly arrived to handle hundreds of calls, according to a report prepared by FVRD staff.
By 2 p.m., five dispatchers were at the office, which is located in Chilliwack and serves fire departments around the region – at least for the next year, until the FVRD closes the office and moves the department to E-Comm in Vancouver. Six part-time workers will lose their jobs with that move. (The centre also employs four full-time workers.)
On Dec. 29, the dispatch centre received more than 900 calls for 577 different incidents, according to the report, which was prepared for the FVRD’s regional and corporate services committee. That was a record and was well above the 2017 daily average of 66 calls. The previous day, Dec. 28, saw 183 calls come in as the freezing rain began. Of the incidents reported, most came from Abbotsford and Mission, with “wires down” being the most common incident type.
FVRD spokesperson Jennifer Kinneman said the centre wasn’t caught off guard and was aware that more staff may be needed. She noted the call went out early enough to ensure multiple dispatchers were in the office by the time large numbers of calls began coming in around 1 p.m.
The FVRD says it plans to add more staff at the dispatch centre before its closure to ensure that that at least two dispatchers are working between 9 a.m. and 9 p.m., the busiest times for the centre. Those shifts are expected to begin by the end of this month and are meant to address a significant increase in calls over the last year. On the day of the ice storm, there is normally one dispatcher in the office until 4 p.m., when a second arrives.
Just over 24,000 calls were handled in 2017, a 17 per cent increase from 2016.
The report highlighted the spike in 911 calls and praised the response from the dispatch’s centre’s staff during the ice storm. It said dispatchers “showed their dedication and commitment to their profession by keeping the residents of the Fraser Valley safe,” and noted they “will give up their personal time at a moment’s notice to ensure that our residents … receive professional 911 fire dispatch.”