YARMOUTH, N.S. – Firetrucks and firefighters descended on Yarmouth Town Hall the evening of May 17. There was no fire but those who gathered say they are facing an emergency.
Numerous fire departments turned out in protest of the fact the Town of Yarmouth has indicated it will explore the cost of outsourcing fire dispatch services as a means of saving taxpayer money.
The departments want the town to consider the cost of moving away from the local dispatch service not from a financial perspective, but from a safety one.
“We just cannot lose this dispatch service, it cannot be replaced from an outside source,” Lake Vaughan Fire Department Chief George Emin told town council during a presentation. “Someday, somewhere, it’s going to cost somebody a life.”
The fire departments and firefighters believe an outside service will not contain the knowledge that local dispatchers have of roads, streets, landmarks and available resources. The dispatchers who work out of the Yarmouth Fire Department provide dispatch services for two dozen departments spanning an area from Weymouth to Shelburne.
“I’m sure all the councillors know where Braemar Lodge was,” Emin said, noting if someone was to report a motor vehicle accident from that area they might say, ‘I’m on the Braemar road.’
“No outside source is going to be able to find it. They’re not going to know where it is. These (local) dispatchers would know it’s the Saunders Road,” he said, noting members of the public will often use landmarks to describe areas they are in, therefore local knowledge is key.
Emin and Jason George, the president of the Yarmouth Volunteer Fire Department Association, said in their presentation that in emergencies like a fire, minutes matter. George asked several questions of council. He asked why the other municipalities and outside departments weren’t consulted before the town made a decision to seek information on the cost of outsourcing the dispatch services.
“What’s it going to take to keep this viable service, our safety net, our safety line communication person, for all of our departments?” he asked.
As per its normal procedure, decisions are not made by council directly after a presentation to give councillors the opportunity to mull over what has been presented. Councillors also did not ask any questions and there was no general discussion of the matter during the rest of the open council meeting.
The town has said it carries a disproportionate financial share of the dispatch services. The town says it pays approximately $161,000 of the annual cost. The Municipality of Yarmouth pays around $69,000. Departments each pay around $100 a month, which the town has said amounts to around $28,800.
Following the council meeting Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood was asked where things stand on this issue.
“We haven’t sent the RFP out yet. The CAOs got together and they’re talking. The municipal units are talking. That’s as far as I can say,” she said.
Asked if the town would consider not doing an RFP (request for proposals) if the other municipal units and/or the fire departments came forward with an alternative funding proposal, the mayor said the town does not have an answer to that question at this point.
“I’d have to see what that conversation is first. Let’s be honest, we’re open. We haven’t closed down anything. But it can’t look the way that it does right now,” she said, adding she was glad a presentation was brought to the council meeting.
“It's a great show of support and their solidarity,” she said. “It’s a great thing for the community to come together like this and I guess I want the community to know that – that we appreciate when people come out.”
But the firefighters weren’t here just because of solidarity – they were also here because they have serious concerns over the outsourcing of dispatch services.
Returning to the initial question – ‘Where do things stand?’ – the mayor said although negotiations with the union have stopped, they are not over.
“There are conversations going on, we can't say what will come of them, not because I don’t want to but because I don’t know what the answers are yet. It's the same with the RFP . . . we can’t even speak to that until we know exactly what the numbers are,” she said. “As much as people want answers it does no one any good for me to just guess. We need to sit tight, we need to wait for the answers and see where we go from there.”
The town notes that other municipal units in the province use the type of dispatch service that it would be getting cost estimates about. And it says the province and municipalities have also invested heavily in the civic address numbering system.
A letter given to the four local dispatchers from town CAO Jeff Gushue on April 30 advising them of their layoffs reads, in part: “Over the next few weeks we will get formal price quotations from dispatch services. With that information in hand we will be able to give you a better sense of when we will be able to give you formal notification and other details of the layoff. At this point we do not know the exact date of the layoffs and anticipate that it will be several weeks, perhaps even months, before the town gives notice of layoff to you. Please be assured that we will take steps to ensure that this layoff is implemented as fairly as possible. We thank you for your service.”
The letter sounds like a done deal. But is it? That’s the answer people are seeking.
And it’s the scenario the fire departments want to avoid.
People continue to question why the town wouldn’t go to the other municipal units and the departments first in search of a better funding arrangement. The town has said during union contract negotiations it wanted to be upfront about its intentions and felt those most impacted deserved to know first where the town stood.
“As much as people think that’s backwards, it was out of respect for our people,” said the mayor. She said there is no timeframe in place for an RFP.
“We understand the concerns. We have families here too so we’re not going to do anything to endanger our families either. But the funding model, something needs to change,” she said.
During the presentation to council, Chief Emin noted neighbouring fire departments constantly provide mutual aid assistance to the Yarmouth Fire Department. He said if the town was billed for mutual aid it would amount to approximately $150,000 annually.
“Is our service of no value to you? Is this not contributing towards this dispatch in a different way? We may not be trading cash back and forth, but we do provide a service,” Emin said, stressing again firefighters provide a service where minutes matter.
Emin said like the town has choices, there are choices the outside departments and the Yarmouth County Mutual Aid Association could make. They could continue on with business as usual with no charge, he said. Or they could provide assistance and bill the town of Yarmouth.
“Or we have the choice that we could just stop coming in and helping the Town of Yarmouth,” said Emin. “Everybody decided that the only ones that are going to lose is the general public and the safety of the Yarmouth firefighters and the safety of the public, so our choice was no changes. You will still continue to get help.”