Lost among the headlines of doctor and paramedic shortages looms another development with consequences for the safety of communities: fire departments, especially those in smaller communities, are finding it more difficult to recruit volunteer firefighters. Developments in the Vancouver Island village of Zeballos underscored this development.
The village temporarily suspended its volunteer fire department for several reasons, including a shortage of staff, for four months before reinstating it in September 2022.
While the situation in Zeballos might represent an extreme scenario, volunteer firefighters and departments relying on them represent the bulk of firefighters in Canada.
According to a 2018 report by the National Fire Protection Association, 83 per cent of Canada’s 152,650 local firefighters are volunteers. Of the 3,672 active fire departments in Canada identified by the report, 3,061 were all volunteer departments, the rest divided across mostly volunteer (501), mostly career (44) and all career (66). The report also found that firefighters in smaller communities are more likely to be volunteers.
Concerns about the recruitment of volunteers are also on the mind of North Saanich Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Trelford as his department continues its current recruitment drive.
“Every time, we start a recruitment drive, I wonder, ‘OK, is this going to be the year when we are struggling to get numbers,’” he said. But locals continue to step up. “(During) our last one, we had 20 people and we needed six or eight,” he said. “(It’s) hard to answer (how things will unfold in the future), but we have always had such great success with our recruitment drives, I don’t anticipate it being an issue, not for quite some time.”
Trelford said volunteers are critical for maintaining the protective services offered through the department.
“Volunteers are what make the department,” said Trelford, one of six full-time staff at the department who look after what he called the day-to-day operations. “But don’t forget evenings and weekends — that is where we rely on our volunteers, responding to calls and all the emergencies.”
Trelford said the department currently has 39 volunteers but looks to increase the number to 45 to account for retirements, people moving away or finding employment with career departments in the region, be it with Victoria, Saanich, Esquimalt or Victoria International Airport. “And they do,” he said. “They get hired because our training program is awesome.”
Deputy Fire Chief Aaron Kary said the current recruitment drive brought in about 30 applications. A third information session was held Tuesday (Oct. 11), with a physical fitness and dexterity test scheduled for Oct. 15.
This recruitment is unfolding against growing concerns about the affordability of the Saanich Peninsula (which has the potential to drive individuals out of the region into more affordable areas) and pressures to balance professional demands with personal obligations all while finding time for a demanding volunteer position, if they make it.
“It’s a big commitment, particularly in the first year, their probationary period,” said Trelford. “There is a lot of studying, a lot of exams, a lot of training. But once people get in, they kind of get addicted to it.”
It is this sense of community service coupled with the feeling of camaraderie that continues to draw volunteers, even as they face all those competing demands, he added.
“It’s just a great thing to be a part of,” said Trelford. “You are respected in the community as being one of the volunteer firefighters and it’s kind of a membership into an exclusive club.”
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