Central Okanagan fire departments lose ability to control highway traffic lights

Officials with the Kelowna and West Kelowna fire departments say the loss of control is a safety issue.

A mobile home on Boucherie Road in West Kelowna was destroyed by fire on Saturday morning.

Most people think that when a fire truck approaches a red light with its siren on and its lights flashing, the light can be changed to green.

But that’s not the case on the highway through Kelowna and West Kelowna—at least not for the last seven months.

Since April, the system allowing fire trucks to control the lights and get to calls quicker has been shut off by the province due to technical problems.

And the long wait for the system to be fixed has become a concern for fire departments on both sides of Okanagan Lake.

They want to know when it’s coming back on line.

“Without the system, the benefits of lights and sirens is mitigated,” said deputy Kelowna fire chief Travis Whiting.

In West Kelowna, city council has instructed its fire chief, Jason Brolund, to write to the Minister of Transportation urging him to not only have the Highway 97 emergency traffic pre-emption system, as it is known, restored as quickly as possible, but commit to a time line for its repair.

Brolund said the issue is not only a problem for firefighters getting to the calls quicker, but is also one of road safety.

He said, without the light control, fire trucks have to come to a complete stop at all red lights, something other drivers may not expect when they see a firetruck with its lights and siren on. That can create traffic issues at intersections.

As for getting to calls quicker, Whiting said even with drivers pulling over to let firetrucks pass, the rucks can still get stuck in heavy traffic that cannot be cleared controlling a traffic signal.

When operating, the system is powered by equipment that the the cites pay for to be installed on fire trucks that sends a signal to traffic lights as they approach. Buses also use the system, which was initiated in 2007.

“A fire truck can change a light to green,” said Brolund. “A bus can hold a green.”

While the system is not currently working on Highway 97, it is still working on city owned traffic signals off the highway in both Kelowna and West Kelowna.

West Kelowna has only has municipal intersection where the traffic signals can be controlled—at Old Okanagan Highway and Butt Road—while Kelowna has it at all its major intersections.