YARMOUTH, N.S. – A recommendation to approve a communication plan aimed at informing residents about the decision process when it comes to fire dispatch service outsourcing has been approved by Yarmouth Town Council.
Councillors voted in favour of this recommendation at a June 27 committee of the whole meeting, and then again in favour of the recommendation during a special council meeting. It was stressed no final decision had yet been made concerning dispatch services. At that time the town had not yet issued a request for proposals, which it had indicated a couple of months ago it would be doing.
In April, during contract negotiations with the union local of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) union, the town indicated it would be exploring the cost of using an outside dispatch service and would be laying off the four fire dispatchers who work at the Yarmouth Fire Department.
The town said it pays a disproportionate portion of the cost of the dispatch services, which serves 24 departments in located in Yarmouth, Shelburne and Digby counties.
(Note: Not all departments in Digby are serviced by the Town of Yarmouth. There is a dispatch centre in Digby.)
A report submitted to council by the town’s economic development officer says outside of HRM and CBRM there are only three other towns in Nova Scotia who do not rely solely on a volunteer fire department and that dispatch is not customarily a part of other town/district fire departments as services are usually contracted to third parties.
“The Town of Yarmouth dispatch service likely made sense at the time it was established, but technology and escalating costs have exposed this service as being one that may no longer be sustainable,” reads the report.
The rest of western Nova Scotia, the report notes, is served by dispatch centres in the Digby, Kentville and Bridgewater areas. As an example, Valley Communications serves as a fire dispatch centre for 82 fire departments in Nova Scotia, but it is not solely dedicated to fire dispatch. It is also one of four locations in the province to handle 911 calls and provides after hours dispatch for the Kentville Police Service.
The town’s plan to outsource fire dispatch services has not sat well with everyone, including local fire departments. There have been meetings, a protest rally outside of town hall and a group called Save Yarmouth Dispatch was started up on Facebook.
Concerns raised include worry over response time delays, the loss of local knowledge and expertise by the local dispatchers, the loss of the brotherhood between the departments and the dispatchers, and the loss of local jobs.
The town has indicated its desire to outsource is not a reflection of the work being done by the dispatchers, but rather, it says, a broken funding model that sees it covering the bulk of the costs for the region.
The possibility of having other municipalities and/or departments pay more towards the dispatch service to more adequately even things out was raised at a May meeting of fire departments and various municipal CAOs have discussed possible options.
On June 26 Alain Muise, the CAO of the Municipality of Argyle, said on behalf of a CAO group he had submitted a draft proposal to the town “outlining an increase in funding from our collective areas.” Because it was a draft proposal not yet endorsed by councils it wasn’t released publicly.
Following the town’s June 27 committee of the whole meeting, council went in-camera to discuss the submitted proposal. It said the discussion was held behind closed doors because it dealt with ongoing contract negotiations.
Following the discussion there was no motion concerning the proposal brought back to council. Because the discussion was held in-camera the town was not in a position to disclose if the proposal was accepted or rejected. Yarmouth Mayor Pam Mood said the town would be responding back to the CAO group.
The communication plan, meanwhile, that will go town council for recommendation on July 12 involves using the town’s ‘Get Involved Yarmouth’ engagement website:
• to inform the public about council’s investigation to outsource the town’s fire dispatch service;
• to inform the public of the cost per resident to access the fire dispatch service;
• to inform the public on fire dispatch service standards and how it would be maintained with the outsource model.
Lynn Seeley, one of the Yarmouth Fire Department’s paid firefighters and president of the International Association of Firefighters Local 2094, said last week there haven’t been any discussions between the town and the union since the layoff notices were delivered to the fire dispatchers in April.
He says they’ve sent letters to the town’s bargaining lawyer and the mayor since that time, but no further talks have taken place.
Seeley said he’ll be awaiting the information that the town intends to post on its Get Involved Yarmouth website.
“I watched the (June 27) meeting and it almost sounds like they don’t want input they’re just putting information on there – their information,” he said.
Asked last week if he saw this as a done deal from the town’s perspective Seeley said, “We’ve always looked at it this way. If they try and bargain with the municipal units and put a counter proposal on this deal, I’d say they’re willing to deal. If they don’t, it was never meant to be. The decision was made.”
During the June 27 committee of the whole meeting town councillor Clifford Hood noted the Town of Bridgewater’s fire dispatch services have been listed in recent budgets there as $9,100 and $9,500 a year. “That compares to our cost of $240,000,” he said.