(Free Press file photo)

Ten 911 dispatchers with the London fire department were paid an average of nearly $140,000 last year — on par with the deputy chiefs and more than almost all frontline firefighters.

While the pay was pumped up considerably by a retroactive gender-equity payout, The Free Press review of public-sector wages suggests some of the so-called communication operators who answer emergency calls may soon inch within range of $100,000 in regular pay alone.

That benchmark, at which public employees’ wages are published on Ontario’s annual Sunshine List, has become an annual hotspot for the London Professional Fire Fighters Association (LPFFA) — which had 269 members making six-figure incomes in 2014.

The majority of those are frontline firefighters, whose leaders and defenders have a common response to critics of their pay: Their jobs could, at any moment, turn deadly.

But the dispatchers, while involved in fire calls from start to finish, face no such danger.

Their pay, including the one-time 2014 payout, could further rankle taxpayers, and shines a spotlight on one part of the city’s ongoing arbitration fights with the firefighters’ association.

John Hassan, the association’s president, defends the 911 dispatchers’ role as integral to fighting blazes across London.

“911 dispatchers, in our unit — they take the call and are on the call,” Hassan said in a recent interview. “While we’re at a fire, they’re receiving information and passing it along.”

This, Hassan noted, is in contrast to some organizations where the call is passed along and the dispatcher’s work is done.

“It’s a very complicated job. It can be a very stressful job.”

But dispatcher work — and the inflated 2014 pay drawing attention — underscores a sliver of the arbitration fight between city hall and the firefighters’ union, which resumes this month.

Among the city’s demands is a push for what it calls “an alternate service delivery model” — which could be interpreted as the freedom to potentially privatize fire-related services like dispatch work.

There is no push to privatize any frontline firefighter work.

By one internal city hall estimate, privatizing dispatchers and other fire support services could save up to $1 million a year.

It must be noted that base pay isn’t the only reason so many London Professional Fire Fighters Association members are on Ontario’s list of public-sector workers making $100,000-plus.

Overtime is another major factor.

City hall estimates it paid $2.5 million in overtime to its firefighters last year, part of a strategy that ends up saving the city money in fewer new hirings.

patrick.maloney@sunmedia.ca

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911 DISPATCHERS

Communication operators (911 dispatchers):

“(They) play a key role in the response to emergencies. They serve as the vital link between the public and firefighting crews, answering the 911 calls and dispatching the appropriate resources to mitigate the incidents.” — City of London website

2014 Sunshine list:

  • Janice Lynn Barnes: $151,161
  • Bridget Ann Bond: $149,613
  • Patricia Brooks: $101,978
  • Kendra Gail Dubeau: $150,082
  • Kathy A. Dunham: $152,241
  • Lorraine Gail Embury: $152,545
  • Kimberly M. Gough: $131,483
  • Linda Jean: $145,646
  • Ida Piroli: $142,116
  • Vivian Ruth Walsh: $119,943

AVERAGE 2014 PAY: $139,690

Inflated into six figures by retroactive pay-equity decision comparisons

FOR CONTEXT, WITHIN LONDON FIRE:

  • Gary Bridge, deputy fire chief: $135,288
  • Brian George, deputy fire chief: $138,150
  • David Lazenby, deputy fire chief: $140,016
  • John Kobarda, fire chief: $199,282

COMPARABLE PAY IN OTHER CITY DEPARTMENTS:

  • Louise Stevens, director of municipal housing: $149,736
  • Susanna Hubbard Krimmer, London Public Library CEO: $141,356

Source: $140K a year to do what? | The London Free Press