Volunteer firefighters harder to recruit and retain during Alberta's downturn, chief says
Rural areas struggle to find willing workers and understanding employers who let them leave on moment's notice
Volunteers make up more than 80 per cent of Alberta's firefighters but the economic downturn has hit recruitment and retention hard, says a local fire chief, especially in smaller communities.
Rockyview County has been losing about 16 per cent of its volunteers each year, according to fire Chief Randy Smith.
"We'll do our training and then we'll print out our roster sheet and we'll already start losing people," he said.
About half of the firefighters in the rural county, which surrounds Calgary on the east, west and north, are volunteers.
Smith said it's a growing challenge to find people who are willing and able to meet the long-term demands of part-time firefighting, as many are scrambling to find regular work and struggling business owners can ill afford staffing disruptions.
Justin Lindquist and his employer are making it work, however.
When a call comes in for help, the mechanic suddenly switches hats, quite literally, and becomes a firefighter.
As he races to a highway crash or house fire, his bosses at the garage back in Irricana, Alta., have to cover for him.
They say it's all about being good neighbours.
"Here's the thing. In a small town community, you have to give back to your community," said Caroline Quilloy at Phil's Auto.
"You never know when he could be helping our neighbour."
Smith said the shortage is getting to the point in some areas that it can affect response times.
Despite the challenges, he said most rural fire departments continue to make do, and that's largely through the dedication of the volunteers that remain.
Lindquist — who showed up at Phil's Auto at age 14, resume in hand, willing to do whatever needed to be done at the garage — said he feels a similar sense of duty to the local fire department.
"I knew they were struggling with people for a while there," he said.
"There was only five people at our station ... so right when I turned 18, I started getting into it."
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With files from Dave Gilson