St. Albert, Alta. Local 2130 successful in bid to save local fire dispatchers

July 24 • 2023

Image from St. Albert Local 2130’s Instagram page.

St. Albert, Alta. has reversed a decision to contract its fire dispatch to a call centre outside the city following a successful campaign from IAFF Local 2130 that poked holes in the city’s financial arguments while highlighting how having local fire dispatch played a key role in a dramatic rescue.
The campaign, which included assistance from IAFF 6th District Vice President Mike Carter and IAFF Senior Executive for Eastern Canada Carmen Santoro, saved the jobs of four IAFF dispatchers while maintaining public and fire fighter safety by ensuring fire dispatchers are familiar with the city and its surroundings.

The issue arose in 2022 when two separate consultants recommended outsourcing fire dispatch in the city of 70,000 near Edmonton, one claiming there would be cost savings of $340,000. Council initially delayed a decision on the move when St. Albert fire fighters raised public safety concerns about the plan but voted narrowly in July 2022 to proceed.

When only one outside vendor submitted a bid, which came with a savings of only $20,000, the city pivoted and claimed that outsourcing would save $1.2 million in dispatch upgrades necessary for the federally mandated switch to NextGen 911, an enhanced type of emergency communication that enables call takers to receive video and other data from callers during emergencies.

Local 2130 President Greg Harvey said he believes the city was using the dispatch issue to attack the local and leverage them during contract negotiations, which were ongoing at the time.

Fire fighters were receiving mixed messages on the issue, and Harvey said it was only through a chance meeting with a friendly councillor that he learned council was preparing to move ahead with the plan.

Local 2130 sprang into action, first providing the mayor and council with a fact sheet from the IAFF NextGen 911 Committee. At the June 20 council meeting, Harvey again urged council to keep the local dispatchers in the name of public safety. In an emotional moment, a 17-year-old who had been pulled from a remote waterway in cardiac arrest and his mother both told council how a dispatcher was able to pinpoint the teen’s location based only on landmarks provided by the caller, enabling rescuers to reach him quickly.

“I don’t think there was anyone who didn’t have a little moisture in their eyes on that one,” Harvey said, explaining how the incident drove home the message that having local dispatchers who know the area is a critical factor in public safety.

On the issue of costs, Santoro illustrated to council how original system upgrade estimates were significantly inflated, and the difference between outsourcing and keeping the dispatch local was around $20,000, or six cents per household per month. It was also revealed that the city had already set aside the funds needed for the NextGen 911 upgrade.

After hearing from Local 2130, Santoro, the rescued teen, and his mother, council voted 5-2 to shelve the outsourcing.

“It was quite a good feeling for us,” Harvey said of the outcome. “I can’t imagine another dispatch service could provide what our dispatchers do for our staff and our community.”