YARMOUTH, N.S. – What was it like when the telephone rang?
Because it never rang just once.
It rang thousands of times.
And you never knew who, or what, was awaiting you on the other end of the line.
“It was an adrenaline spike,” said fire dispatcher Corey Burke. “Instant.”
“And more so when you picked up the phone and you heard somebody screeching on the other end,” added dispatcher Peter Poirier.
In those times of panic, theirs were the reassuring voices that told the callers help was on the way.
And in times of emergency, theirs were the familiar voices that sent firefighters on their way to the scenes and monitored the situation after they had arrived.
And so on Monday evening, Jan. 28, firefighters from departments throughout the tri-counties and members of the public came to the Yarmouth fire hall to say farewell to the dispatchers but, most of all, to say thanks.
The dispatchers – there were four to start out with, but just three remaining as one had found alternate employment – are seeing their jobs come to end on Jan. 30.
Fire dispatching that used to be handled by the town of Yarmouth’s dispatch centre for fire departments in Yarmouth and Shelburne counties and parts of Digby County, is now being handled by outside dispatch centres. The majority of departments have moved to Digby dispatch, a few have gone to Valley Communications. One has gone to the centre in Bridgewater.
Last April the town of Yarmouth issued layoff notices to the dispatchers – Jeff Crowell, Rob Lowe, Peter Poirier and Corey Burke – saying it intended to explore outside sources for fire dispatch. The town said its reasoning was not a reflection of the quality of the dispatchers’ work, but rather because the town was paying a disproportionate portion of maintaining the service that was used by two dozen fire departments. They said moving to an outside source could save it money.
While they tried, the town, the municipalities, the fire departments and the union were unable to reach an agreement that suited everyone in order to maintain the dispatch service in Yarmouth. Fire departments and municipalities said a proposal from the town was too costly, whereas the town said the option it received didn’t remove enough of the financial burden from its taxpayers.
The town is the last unit to move its fire department to another dispatch centre. The switchover to Digby dispatch occurs on Jan. 30.
The farewell held for the dispatchers, organized by firefighters and community members, included a parade of fire trucks and vehicles on Pleasant Street, cake, refreshments, reminisces and thanks. The dispatchers were presented with cards, well wishes and tickets to the weekend’s Mariners hockey game for the dispatchers and their families.
Those who gathered at the fire hall for the farewell had hoped the outcome to the fire dispatch issue would have been different.
When asked about the service the dispatchers had provided over the decades, people couldn’t say enough good things.
“They had our backs. They knew what we needed,” said said East Pubnico fire chief Joe d’Eon. “Anytime I called for anything they knew where to find it. With the new dispatch I don’t know how exactly it will be.”
He said there is apprehension in going to an outside dispatch source because of the uncertainty of how much of the local knowledge will exist in comparison to what firefighters have experienced and been accustomed to through the work of the Yarmouth dispatchers.
Hank Nickerson, a paid firefighter and platoon chief with the Yarmouth Fire Department, said when he and another firefighter left the fire hall and arrived on scene, the dispatcher was always considered the third man on the scene.
“We didn’t have to call and get any equipment sent there, that was always done for us,” he said. “That was a big plus for us.”
He recalled a fire at the Town Point Wharf last year as one of many examples where the dispatchers really came through.
“I just said I need water and manpower and they took care of the rest. I didn’t have to worry about it,” he said. “We’re going to miss that.”
He said losing the local dispatchers is a loss to the fire service. The dispatchers may not have been at the fire scenes, but nonetheless there were there just the same – standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their fire comrades, Nickerson said.
The dispatchers see it the same way.
“They took care of us, we took care of them,” said dispatcher Rob Lowe.
“It’s a family,” added Corey Burke.
Asked what it’s meant for them to be a dispatcher,
Peter Poirier said it was a job in which no two days were ever the same.
“You never knew what disaster was on the other end of the phone. Some days it was only something smaller. Some days it was something really big,” he said. “But I enjoyed every minute of it.”
"I'd do it again tomorrow,” Poirier said, wishing he and the other dispatchers could continue to have the chance to do so in the weeks, months and years ahead.