YARMOUTH, N.S. – There are seven fire departments in the tri-counties who have already left the Yarmouth dispatch centre, which, says one municipal unit, was by no means an easy decision to make.
“We didn’t take it lightly, it was a hard decision,” says David Kendrick, fire service coordinator for the Municipality of Barrington, where two departments have already left and are now with the Valley Communications dispatch centre. He says deciding to leave the Yarmouth dispatch centre came down to uncertainty for the future and the financial cost.
For the three fire departments in the Municipality of Barrington, the cost to pay for dispatch services would have been $31,800 for six months, Kendrick says, which translates to $63,600 for a year.
“We just felt we couldn’t do that, going from $3,600 to more than $60,000,” he says.
The cost increase stems from a financial formula the Town of Yarmouth sent to the 24 departments served by the dispatch centre based on a five-year average of usage of the service.
The two departments in the Municipality of Barrington to have left the Yarmouth dispatch service are Barrington/Port Latour and Island/Barrington Passage. Kendrick says originally Woods Harbour/Shag Harbour was going to leave as well, but that department has decided to wait to see what happens with the Yarmouth dispatch centre.
At an Oct. 24 committee of the whole meeting for Yarmouth town council, Yarmouth Fire Chief John Verrall told council that seven departments had given their formal notification that they are leaving.
Aside from the two departments in Barrington municipality that have left to go to the Valley Communications centre, the Shelburne department has also left Yarmouth to go to the Valley centre.
The Meteghan, Salmon River and Hectanooga fire departments have decided to move to Digby dispatch services, Verrall said. The Middle/Upper Ohio department in Shelburne intends to Scotia Business Centre dispatch, located in Bridgewater.
“Those are the ones I know of. There might be other ones in the works that I may not know of,” said the chief. “But officially those are the ones that I have documentation on.”
The future of the local dispatch service in Yarmouth has been up in the air since late April when the town issued layoff notices to the four dispatchers, saying it intended to explore other dispatch services that would be less costly to the town.
In the months since, there have been meetings, a protest outside of the town hall, lots of public discussion on social media and continued exploration of avenues to try and keep the local dispatch services in place.
The town has always stated it is not dissatisfied with the quality of the dispatch service. Rather it says its taxpayers have been paying the bulk of the service and a more evenly-spread out funding formula or funding mechanism should be in place if this service is to remain.
The town has received two proposals for its own dispatching needs from outside dispatch services, but said last week it has not yet reviewed those proposals. Instead, it has been waiting to see if a proposal it submitted to fire chiefs in August is going to be accepted by the departments.
THE TOWN’S PITCH
The town’s proposal would initially see departments pay for six months of dispatch services was based on a five-year average of their usage of the service. For many fire departments the six-month bill they would have to pay through this arrangement is quite costly compared to what they have been paying for the dispatch service.
The proposal also suggested the exploration of a one-cent area rate.
The town had asked the departments to respond back by Sept. 24, but last month a 45-day extension was asked for, and granted, as departments strongly felt that mutual aid should be considered if a new funding formula for dispatch services is going to be considered.
In its August letter to the fire chiefs, the town had noted that any department choosing another provider would be removed from the funding equation, which would impact the funding rates for others that remain.
“Obviously there is a tipping point at which the Town of Yarmouth might decide there is insufficient interest, and too high a cost, to continue to offer the service,” that letter read.
There was no discussion about any ‘tipping point’ at last week’s committee of the whole meeting.
The amount the town had been looking to bill the seven departments that have indicated they are leaving the Yarmouth dispatch centre totals $40,198 for six months.
WHEN THEY GO
Chief Verrall says there are steps that have to be taken before a department can leave its current dispatch service. He says if a fire department is switching its dispatch service, 911 – which is run by Emergency Measures Organization – has to be informed and given time to take all of the necessary steps for the switchover before it happens.
“To just say, ‘Tomorrow we’re switching over,’ you can’t do that because you’ve got to have 911 all (lined up) in a row.”
In the Municipality of Barrington, Kendrick says their two departments have gone through that process.
“You have to notify 911. The only days you can move is on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. The mapping all has to be changed and it takes them time to get that part set up,” he says, adding they’ve now been set up with the Valley dispatch for a while.
OTHER WAYS TO COMMUNICATE
In addition to 911 and dispatch, the Chief Verrall says TMR – trunk mobile radio – allows departments to communicate with each other, even if they are not served by the same dispatch system.
“We can talk to pretty well anyone in the province that we need to,” he says.
“If I was in command at any scene and I needed another fire department I would get on the radio and say I need another department and whoever is dispatching for me gets ahold of that department and sends them,” he says. “When the trucks roll out of that department, they just switch to the channel we’re on and talk to us directly.”
Chief Verrall says the notifications he had received from the departments who have indicated they are leaving the Yarmouth dispatch service did not specify the reasons why they are leaving. At the committee of the whole meeting, councillors did not ask if reasons had been supplied.
But again, for their departments Kendrick says uncertainty and costs were the factors.
“We didn’t do this lightly. Everybody, I think, wanted to stay with Yarmouth, but for some of us it became evident, after three or four months, that Yarmouth wasn’t going to be there anymore, that’s just the way we felt,” he says.
“It was tough. There are a lot of sentimental feelings. Me personally, I know the dispatchers . . . they’re good people. I hate to see this happen.”
Chief Verrall, meanwhile, also encourages people to visit the province’s EMO website for information on emergencies and public safety.
As for contract negotiations concerning the local fire services contact, the town of Yarmouth refers to negotiations as “slowed, but ongoing” saying the next session is scheduled for Nov. 6.
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