Manitoba’s FleetNet emergency communications network may soon get a long-awaited replacement.
Premier Brian Pallister announced $400 million to replace the communications systems used by Manitoba’s emergency services, police and conservation officers Nov. 25.
“The new system will give our police officers, firefighters, paramedics, conservation officers and forest fire crews a superior communication tool that will enable them to work more effectively, make their jobs safer and ultimately save lives,” Pallister said at the annual meeting of the Association of Manitoba Municipalities.
The province hopes to have the replacement running by 2021.
The announcement is based on a standing promise from the province to replace FleetNet with a new two-way digital radio system.
Pallister pitched the change as a significant improvement.
Some emergency services have complained that the current system has unreliable coverage in some rural areas, while the province says it is outdated and in need of upgrade. The new system would both provide more coverage and be more secure, the province argues.
In some cases, gaps in the current system have left local first responders reliant on cellphone networks instead, said Nick Krawetz, Association of Manitoba Municipalities senior policy and communications analyst (AMM).
Rural cellphone coverage is also a hot topic among rural Manitobans. Last year, frustration over poor cell reception hit a boiling point after local officials near Alonsa were left unable to communicate when a tornado hit their community, killing a 77-year-old man. The issue picked up steam again weeks later, when local volunteers near Crystal City found themselves without cell service and unable to co-ordinate when a local grain elevator caught fire and burned to the ground, also damaging a nearby hardware store.
“The improvement of the FleetNet system for public safety, for firefighters and emergency people, has been on the agenda for probably 10 years and it’s not been rolled out because it’s not a simple process,” AMM president Ralph Groening said.
One challenge for the new system revolved around police need to have their line secure, he noted.
“Now this government is taking some action to put in place what has to be, and what should be, in place for public safety, but there’s still certain challenges that they do have,” Groening said, “but I believe that they’re moving in the right direction.”
Footing the bill
The province will shoulder the bill for setting up the new network, Pallister said. The system comes with an estimated $380-million initial price tag, plus $20 million a year once it comes online in 2021.
Darin Driedger, co-ordinator for the Southern Emergency Response Committee (SERC) near Winkler and Morden, says FleetNet has generally been good for the communities’ emergency services, but added that they have run into coverage issues in more rural parts of the RM of Stanley.
“If you can’t have access to your critical communications systems between emergency responders, your response can get compromised,” he said. “I would say it’s very critical for first responders and emergency planners, anyway, to kind of have a more robust communications system in play.”
It’s Driedger’s hope that the new system will fill some of those gaps. He used the example of the recent three-day storm that hit over the Thanksgiving weekend.
“We started hearing from other communities nearby that their phone systems weren’t working, so then, again, it becomes even more crucial. If you can’t call or phone or use a landline or a cellphone, you have to be able to communicate by radio then, otherwise things really get difficult for emergency responders and dealing with a major incident,” he said.
Municipalities have welcomed the promised coverage upgrade, although Groening says they are still worried about cost. While the province has promised to shoulder setup cost, municipalities will be left with the bill for the new radios used by the system, a cost that Krawetz estimates at up to $5,000 to $8,000 per radio.
Municipalities only recently got those quotes, he added, while they will start transitioning next spring.
Groening also says departments are still getting a handle on how many radios are needed.
“Departments are struggling to clearly identify and get a clear direction from OFC (Office of the Fire Commissioner) or other organization as to what really is needed and then they can more clearly define and give to their councils the budget that’s required to make those purchases,” he said. “For the moment, what’s happened is we were told to prepare our budget documents with some inclusion of the additional cost of the radios.”
Another $45 million is also slated for, “damage prevention and climate resiliency measures,” the province announced.
Funds will be equally split between the metro-Winnipeg area, rural municipalities, and to fund, “previously identified provincial priorities to provide greater protection,” the province said.
Few details of that program have been released.
The funds were previously meant for the Lake St. Martin outlet channel project, but were reallocated due to that project’s delays, Pallister said.
The province has further promised $3 million to guard against a possible spring flood. The province has announced a panel of members from the AMM, metro-Winnipeg area and the province to decide how that money will be used.