In an ideal world, police, fire, and EMS agencies all would use the same radio system and operate on the same frequencies. By doing so, they could talk to each other at all times, regardless of circumstance.

In the late 1990s, police, fire, EMS, and transit agencies serving Victoria, B.C., and environs decided to make this interoperability dream a reality. To do so, 39 of them founded a corporation called Capital Region Emergency Service Telecommunications (CREST). The agency-owned-and-controlled corporation's job was to implement and manage a single public-safety communications system to serve about 2000 portable and mobile radios. To accomplish its task, CREST's members selected Motorola to provide trunked VHF SmartZone 4.1 radios and infrastructure to cover the 927 square miles of seashore, mountains and urban high-rises that fell within CREST's footprint, at a cost of $18.5 million CDN.

Fast forward to today: CREST has been on-air for about two years, and many of its users are very, very unhappy with the region's VHF radio system.

“It is hard to predict where it will work and where it won't work,” said Doug Angrove, deputy chief of the City of Victoria Fire Department (VFD). Small wonder: According to the recent “Independent Review of Operations” report commissioned by CREST and prepared by Vancouver-based Planetworks Consulting, “system coverage is significantly deficient in certain areas, including downtown Victoria.” The report further stated that in-building coverage is of “particular concern … mainly in areas of high building density.”

In order to stay in touch, VFD incident commanders typically direct their firefighters to use simplex radio communications inside buildings so that they can be heard outside. Unfortunately, dispatchers can't hear these officers in simplex mode, which is why incident commanders end up using two portable radios. One portable operates in simplex mode for talking to their crew, and the other works in trunked mode for connecting back to dispatch.

“My users are telling me that the previous system had limitations, but they feel that the previous system was better than what we currently have,” Angrove said. “Basically, I need a system that is reliable and dependable; a system that will penetrate most buildings, and also a system that my dispatch can monitor.”

Angrove isn't alone in his complaints. Officers from the Victoria Police Department (VPD) also have gone public with their criticisms of the CREST system on the CTV television network and its Web site (www.ctv.ca).

“When it works, it works fine,” VPD Sgt. Glenn Vermette told CTV News. “However Murphy's Law would always have it that when you need it the most, it's not there.”

“We've had a couple of close calls; we've had situations where we've lost communication with incident command, and I would call them close calls,” said Rick Farrell, Victoria Fire Fighters Union president, according to a CTV news story. “Is it a matter of time [until someone gets hurt]? Yeah, probably.”

CREST's coverage gaps may explain the network's alleged denial-of-service (DOS) issues. The report said that users consistently mentioned being “bonked” — denied access, as signified by a “bonk” tone — by the system as a result of poor coverage. However, poor coverage may not be the only cause for the DOS problems. Other reasons cited by the report — available online at www.crest.bc.ca — include a lack of available channels, busy talk groups, radios roaming between sites and units not completely powered up and thus unable to communicate.

Whatever the causes, CREST hasn't proved to be a radio interoperability dream. In fact, in those “close calls” alluded to by Farrell, CREST's system has been nothing short of a nightmare.

The report offered 21 recommendations that, if implemented, would give the CREST system a real chance of fulfilling its potential. The catch is that implementing the recommendations would require substantial new money and cooperation from CREST's member agencies. “They have to take another pass at restructuring the governance and the financing model of CREST,” said Mike Webb, a Planetworks Consulting associate.

This won't be easy to achieve, Webb said. “I think early on there were a lot of promises made and a lot of unrealistic commitments in order to achieve 100-percent participation,” he said. “One of the most unrealistic expectations [on behalf of the member agencies was] that ‘this would not cost us anything.’”

The system's design apparently is among the unrealistic expectations because the original CREST network concept is nothing like the network that actually got built. According to Ron Cullis, general manager, CREST originally asked Motorola to build a VHF/UHF hybrid radio system, with the UHF to be used “for the core municipalities.” However, in order to bring other entities such as the Royal Canadian Mounted Police into the system, “there was a need to turn the system into a wideband VHF system … [plus] there was not sufficient [800 MHz] UHF spectrum available,” Cullis said.

The result was that CREST ended up as a VHF-only system, even though UHF had been advocated for urban radio coverage. To make matters worse, federal radio regulations forced the VHF system to operate in narrowband rather than wideband mode; this resulted in poorer signal propagation and diminished in-building penetration.

Another problem, according to the report, is that the radio system specifications to which CREST and Motorola agreed “did not incorporate any requirement for the provision or assessment of in-building coverage.” Compounding matters is that “no testing for building penetration margin was conducted,” the report said.

CREST has tried to address the alleged problems, including the deployment of terrestrial uplinks in downtown Victoria to bridge coverage gaps. However, Angrove said uplinks only could do so much.

For instance, a hotel is located at the edge of one uplink. For firefighters, this means that by standing in certain locations, their portable radios can communicate directly to dispatch. But should they move “ten steps either way in either direction,” the direct connection can be lost, Angrove said.

The infrastructure problems are just one part of the story. Given that CREST serves some 2000 radio users, has eight VHF trunked multicast sites and covers a 927-square-mile area, one would expect it to have a reasonably sized staff. But it doesn't, according to Webb. “CREST … is basically Ron [Cullis], who's a part-time general manager and a full-time operations manager, and that's about it,” he said.

While the agency does have substantial support agreements in place with Motorola, “you need bodies of your own” to bridge the gap between vendors and users,” Webb said.

According to Cullis, CREST was assembled from officers drawn from member agencies, who built the system while still keeping their regular jobs. When the system was up and running, “those individuals went back to their previous work,” Cullis said.

To remedy this problem, Planetworks recommended bringing CREST's roster up to five employees. In doing so, CREST could take over some of the work it currently outsources to Motorola at a cost of about $500,000 CDN annually. Even when the cost of the additional staff is factored into the equation, this move could save CREST about $125,000 CDN annually, Webb said.

But such a move might not be feasible given CREST's financial structure. The agency's annual budget is based on two sources: A $1.5 million CDN service fee paid by the municipalities in the Capital Regional District (CRD), and a $350 CDN per-radio annual charge to its members, which generated nearly $600,000 CDN in 2004.

However, given the money borrowed to build the CREST system, the service and membership fees are “well below” the levels required to meet operating expenditures and debt obligations on an ongoing basis, the Planetworks report said. “This deficit will occur even if CREST does not materially increase its operating expenses or capital expenditures to deal with … [its] operational challenges,” the report stated.

Simply put, CREST doesn't receive enough money to keep operating at its current level, let alone make the recommended improvements. To remedy this, Planetworks further recommended changing CREST's funding model so that the amount each member pays is proportional to the size of its geographic coverage area, the number of radios it has, its population base and its overall system usage. But given British Columbia's current tight government finances, selling CREST's member agencies on these recommendations likely won't be easy.

CREST's rise and fall

Late 1990s

Thirty-nine municipalities in and around Victoria, B.C., establish CREST. Its goal: to create a seamless, common VHF radio system.

2003

CREST goes live.

2005

Following numerous complaints, Planetworks is hired by CREST to troubleshoot the network. Planetworks finds CREST to be underfunded, underequipped and undermanned.