YARMOUTH, N.S. – Firefighters from numerous departments in the tri-counties gathered at a meeting May 9 not just to talk about how important local fire dispatch services are to them, but to talk about how vital this service is.
The meeting was called after the Town of Yarmouth indicated, during contract negotiations with the union local of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), that it will be laying off the four dispatchers as it explores the cost of using outside dispatch services.
No one at the meeting Wednesday evening wants to see the town go this route and they talked about what steps should be taken next to save it.
George Emin, the fire chief of the Lake Vaughan fire department in Yarmouth County, suggested that the fire departments (there are two dozen that rely on the dispatch service from Weymouth around to Shelburne) approach the Town of Yarmouth to see what it will take to keep the dispatch services and then follow this up by having fire departments approach their own municipal units.
Approaching local municipal units was also discussed many times during the meeting, as was the possibility of increasing the monthly amount that the departments pay towards the dispatch service, which currently sits at $100 a month. The departments expressed that they would be willing to see this amount increase, although it was also noted there are some departments that are cash strapped.
The town of Yarmouth has said it and its taxpayers pay a disproportionate amount for the dispatch services – which is why it wants to explore less expensive dispatch options. After the department contributions and funding from the Municipality of Yarmouth the town says it is still covering about 70 per cent of the cost for the service that spills into three counties.
The town says the funding coming in from the two dozen volunteer departments towards dispatching costs is $28,800. The Municipality of Yarmouth pays $69,000. The town pays $161,000.
It was noted by the departments at the May 9 meeting that the town has never asked for an increase in their contributions. “If you don’t ask, you don’t receive,” noted one firefighter. Many questioned why the town wouldn’t explore changes to the existing funding arrangement before looking to outsource the service.
Jason Saulnier, a firefighter with the Eel Brook Fire Department and vice-president of the Yarmouth County Mutual Aid Association, said he hasn’t heard anyone say they wouldn’t be willing to pay more if that’s what needed. He also said it’s important that the municipal units stand together with their departments.
The dispatchers, who are town employees, are each paid $40,258. The town has said salaries, benefits and overtime brings the overall annual cost to roughly $260,000 a year.
Yarmouth paid firefighter Lynn Seeley, president of the local 2094 Yarmouth Firefighters Association union of the IAFF, said the union local has taken the position that the town has not considered life safety for firefighters or the public – “that is a priority for us,” he said – and he said the town has not considered all of the economic implications. The union local has asked the town to rescind the dispatcher layoff notifications contained in an April 30 letter.
Seeley spent several minutes reading out the responsibilities and duties of the dispatchers as outlined in the town’s job description for these positions. As he was reading he stressed the line that said dispatchers have to be “familiar with the geographical area and landmarks of the tri-counties.”
This issue was highlighted throughout the meeting as being important to firefighters who worry that an outside dispatch service won’t be familiar the local geography. How will someone from outside the area know which is the next closest fire department to dispatch to a scene, they question? How will they be able to provide information about hydrants and ponds for water sources? How will they know where the closest excavator is if one is required on a fire scene to knock down a structure to make it safer to fight a fire? Will there be continuous monitoring of a fire scene by a dispatch call centre elsewhere like there is now?
The town has stated that an outside dispatch service will offer the same level of service – an important factor for it, the town says – and it says this type of service is the model throughout much of the province. But those at the meeting were skeptical that the same quality level of service will indeed be the case.
Art Rose, the chief of the Port Maitland Fire Department who is also a director with Yarmouth County Mutual Aid Association and the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia – and has been a firefighter for around 45 years – said a lot of these outside services are call centres, not a full dispatch centre that firefighters here are accustomed to.
“In the three counties here are we spoiled? Yes. But we’re spoiled in the right possible way for life perseverance and for saving of property and for our own lives. When we talk to dispatch, they’re like a command centre,” Rose said, saying he recognizes their voices and they recognize his. He said it’s a brotherhood. A trust. “It scares me to death if we’re going to a third-party call centre because we’re not going to get that level of service.”
It was also noted this is about much more than someone who just answers a phone call when a fire is happening.
“If anybody thinks that’s just a piece of cake job answering the phone, I have news for you – that’s just as stressful as going to the fire scene, if not more,” said Lynn Seeley.
Another thing discussed was the trust between firefighters and dispatchers, something that builds up over a number of years and takes into account experience with local departments.
Dispatcher Peter Poirier spoke during the meeting. He told the firefighters that just by the tone of their voice he knows when things are taking a turn for the worst at a fire scene. He said in situations where seconds, not minutes, matter most when reacting to what is happening at a fire scene, it’s important that things happen quickly and this comes with local knowledge and experience.
He feels the town is looking at the cost of the service from the wrong perspective.
“So it costs $260,000,” he said to the firefighters. “What value do any of you place on your life, your family, your kids, anyone else? That’s what it boils down to. What do you value somebody’s life for?”
George Emin also provided some other monetary figures. He spoke of the costs of mutual aid fire service when other departments provide support and manpower at a fire scene. He raised this as an issue since the town has said it is not getting enough money from the rural departments towards the dispatch service. He said over the past two years his department had provided mutual aid to around 10 fire scenes for the Yarmouth Fire Department, with each call being an average of three to four hours.
Quoting rates that Natural Resources pays fire departments for their services at fire scenes, he says if the Yarmouth Fire Department and the town was billed for mutual aid calls from departments at fire scenes it would amount in the thousands of dollars per fire. But there is no bill submitted.
There were members of the Yarmouth and Argyle municipal councils at the meeting who indicated the dispatch issue will be a topic discussed more thoroughly at their council tables. Yarmouth Warden Leland Anthony said the sides all have to work together to find a solution. He listed several concerns he has with doing away with the local dispatchers not just as a warden, but as a resident, including is the town be looking to outsource dispatching for everyone, or just the Town of Yarmouth? Would an outside service be familiar with the local geography and closest services?
Argyle councillor Glenn Diggdon said he felt the wrong question is being asked by the town. He said the question shouldn’t be what is the cost of keeping the dispatch service, but rather what is the cost of losing it?
At the conclusion of the meeting, as the dispatchers sat in the front row, Jason Saulnier asked everyone from the second row on to stand up. As they did he told the dispatchers, “We all stand behind you.”