YARMOUTH, N.S. – People bundled up for the cold in jackets, hats, gloves and scarfs when they attended a rally in Yarmouth on Jan. 19, but they also wore their hearts on their sleeves as they said thanks to four fire dispatchers for the work they’ve done to keep the public and firefighters safe.
The dispatchers – Peter Poirier, Jeff Crowell, Rob Lowe and Corey Burke – were notified in April that the town of Yarmouth intended to lay them off and outsource fire dispatch services. One of the dispatchers has since found other employment.
In the months since the union, members of the public and fire departments have fought to dissuade the town from moving in this direction. And while many still want the town to reconsider, those who attended the rally wanted most of all to let the dispatchers know that they’re appreciated.
This meant a lot to the dispatchers.
“The show of support is great. It shows that people care. There are normal, everyday citizens here. We’ve got members from fire departments that even though they have left us for their (new) dispatch services they have gladly come to show their support,” said Poirier, one of the four dispatchers who will lose their job. “It means a lot.”
The Town of Yarmouth sent out a media release earlier in the week saying the dispatchers had been offered well-paying jobs as firefighters but that the union turned the offer down. Asked if he wanted to be a fireman, Poirier said, “I would have gladly gone, but there are other parts of that offer that made no sense.”
Asked to elaborate, he said, “We’re not going to get into that. We don’t want to negotiate in the media.”
Poirier said his main concern about moving to outside dispatch centres is it could add extra minutes to response times.
“When we take the telephone call and they say it’s for the Yarmouth Fire Department, we push the button that opens the bay door, and/or at the same time if it’s a house fire or something else that is serious, we push a buzzer that alerts the firefighters right away that they have to start getting dressed,” he said. “By the time we’re done collecting the information, even if it’s two minutes or three minutes of collecting the information, they’re ready to go.
“By having it done somewhere else they’re now going to have to wait until they’ve collected all of that information and send out a page. If it takes them three or four minutes, that’s three or four minutes that gets added onto a response time,” Poirier said. “And if you look that that fire doubles in size every 90 seconds, three or four minutes is going to make a big difference.”
Meanwhile, from a personal standpoint of having the layoffs hanging over their heads for so long, Poirier said, “It’s been brutal.”
“It started out the very first day back on April 30 when they told us we were going to be done … Here we are past the middle of January and we still have no firm date,” he said.
Since last spring there have been efforts to try to maintain the local dispatch services, with offers being made by the town to the departments and, as well, municipalities coming up with an offer of their own. But the sides were never able to come to an agreement on a new method of funding the service that suited everyone. For many departments the new costs proposed by the town were too steep and unrealistic in the midst of a fiscal year. For the town, the proposed resolutions brought to it didn’t remove enough of the burden from its taxpayers, who, the town says, have been paying the bulk of the service used by 24 departments in the tri-counties.
MARCHED TO TOWN HALL
People gathered at the Yarmouth fire hall on Saturday afternoon and marched to the town hall, which was closed because it was a weekend. To let their presence be known, people taped signs to the front doors of the town hall.
The rally turnout wasn’t large, but Randy Donaldson, who was an organizer of the event, along with Karen Bullerwell, was pleased to see those who did turn out to show their support.
“It’s a Saturday. We didn’t really anticipate a lot of people being around. The fact that it’s cold and to get people out today from Woods Harbour, Shag Harbour, Lake Vaughan, Pubnico, it shows these guys are going to be greatly missed unless we can get the town somehow to reconsider,” he said. “Last year they were willing to sit down. We just need a little time . . . We’re not giving up. If it’s a lost cause, I don’t know when that will be. Here we’ve got some people who still don’t know when their jobs are going to be done,” he said.
He's like to see the town continue to work to find a solution to this issue that involves keeping the dispatchers employed and the dispatch service local.
Erica Gavel-Williams was one of the people who came out for the rally. Asked why, she said, “Dispatchers are the lifeline to our community. They are the ones that if you had to call, they put out the proper equipment that is needed. One of the dispatchers is actually one of my close friends and to lose their job like that is wrong.
“I really hope that the town will reconsider and reinstate their positions because when you’re dealing with fire, every second counts,” she said, saying the familiarity the dispatchers have with the local area is important.
John Cunningham, deputy warden with the Municipality of Yarmouth and a volunteer firefighter, extended his thanks to the dispatchers.
“On behalf of at least the Carleton fire department I can say this, we’re certainly going to miss your calm, competent, assuring voices over the radio,” he said, adding he is a big believer in the democratic system. He told people if they don’t agree with decisions that any councillor makes, himself included, they can have their voices heard at the ballot box.
Guy Surette, a councillor with the Municipality of Argyle who has been a volunteer fireman since 1981, also attended the rally.
“I just want to thank Peter, Rob, Corey and Jeff. Thank you so much for all you’ve done for the 24 fire departments that have been involved. You worked from the bottom of your hearts. You saw, at emergencies, some of the possibilities that we never thought of as firemen at the scene,” he said.
Jason Saulnier, of the Yarmouth Mutual Aid Association, said many in the public don’t know the full extent of what the dispatchers have done for the departments over the decades.
“Unless you’ve sat in that chair you can’t speak to what these guys do,” he said.
“But I’ve seen them, I’ve used them and I’m going to miss them. On behalf of Yarmouth County I want to thank you . . . Digby has got big boots to fill,” he said, referring to the dispatch centre that many of the fire departments and municipalities previously served by Yarmouth dispatch have made the switch too.
In an interview after addressing the rally, Saulnier said his main concern is timelines for getting out on calls.
“As we’ve stated before, every second counts. If we’re an extra five minutes getting out of the door, that five minutes could mean a lot,” he said. “I’m not going to say anything against Digby. Digby is a good dispatch centre and we’ve had them come to our meetings and we’ve talked to them and we’re going to work with them to do the best we can for our residents. Public safety is number one and that’s what we’re going to work for.”
Saulnier also wanted to assure town residents that fire departments in the county will continue to be there for them.
“I want the residents of the town of Yarmouth to know that as a member of a department out in the county, we are still going to help you. We’re not going to put anybody at risk,” Saulnier said. “That’s how we stand. That’s who we are.”