'It's a huge issue': Volunteer firefighters facing recruitment challenges

While a number of major Canadian cities employ career firefighters, across the country, about 85 per cent of fire protection comes from volunteer departments. And many are struggling with recruitment.

Time commitment needed for training may be deterring young members from joining

Paul Mitchell is the district chief of the Uniondale Fire Department, a volunteer force of 18 members in southwestern Ontario. While major cities employ career firefighters, across the country, about 85 per cent of fire protection comes from volunteer departments. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

One of the most difficult aspects of volunteering as a firefighter in a small community is that when responding to an emergency, the victim you encounter may very well be someone you know — a neighbour, a co-worker, a friend.

Or in the case of Uniondale, Ont., volunteer firefighter Mike Pickering, a daughter.

"Her and her friends got T-boned in an intersection, and of course they called me," he said. "And then the pager went off and I said, 'Well, we're already on our way.'"

Everyone escaped unscathed — except for Pickering's nerves, rattled by the incident.

"It hurts the most when it's somebody you know. And that's the problem being in a small community, you know a lot of people," said the full-time truck mechanic, who has been a volunteer firefighter for 12 years.

While major cities employ career firefighters, across the country, in towns like Uniondale, about 85 per cent of fire protection comes from volunteer departments. And recruitment has become a significant challenge.

'It's a huge issue'

"It's a huge issue whether in small town B.C. or small town P.E.I.," said Dave Balding, fire chief of Golden Fire Rescue in B.C, who writes about firefighting issues.

There are 18 volunteers stationed at Uniondale's fire hall, which is nestled in the small southwestern farming town, home to only about 50 people. The firefighting unit, however, covers a much larger area surrounding the town.

The volunteers in Uniondale, Ont., meet three times a month, in addition to any calls that come in.

The volunteers meet three Mondays a month: two of those days are for training, and the other is for equipment checks.

When not strapping on gear, climbing into a big red truck and racing out to an emergency, the firefighters are busy working at their full-time jobs — many are farmers, construction workers or small-business owners.

A coroner's inquest is currently investigating the deaths of two Ontario volunteer firefighters; each died during separate firefighter training exercises, serving as a reminder that the volunteers who protect many communities across the country take on very real risks.

'You miss birthdays'

"You're doing it not so much because we get to play with the big red trucks and make lots of noise, but it's the best way some of us know to give back," said Doug Lapchuk, president of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association.

"So you make sacrifices: you miss birthdays, you miss suppers, you're the one getting called out at two in the morning."

Full-time career firefighters can finish a shift and climb right into bed. But volunteer firefighters, having spent the night responding to an emergency, quite often need to be ready for other jobs in the morning.

"Lots of us have gone straight from a call, right to the house to have a quick shower, and go to work. So it can make for long, long days," said Lapchuk, who is also deputy chief of the Balgonie Fire Department, in Saskatchewan.

Although they're all considered volunteer, some departments do pay by the hour — and some pay nothing.

Most of Uniondale's volunteer firefighters also hold full-time jobs; they're farmers, construction workers and small-business owners. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

"We receive a whole $15 a call, no matter how long the call is," Lapchuk said of his department's arrangement. "And that's just basically as a way to say thank you to our firefighters."

For working families, who are also trying to fit in organized activities for their kids, finding time to volunteer has become more difficult, Balding said.

As well, more rigorous training standards mean a greater time commitment to the job. Many volunteer services follow the same training guidelines as full-time firefighters.

"I don't think people are any busier [than] they were 30 years ago but there are a lot more demands on your time in terms of training," said Paul Mitchell, district chief of the Uniondale Fire Dept.

"When we go into a house that's on fire, that house that's on fire doesn't know whether we're paid or not," said Balding. "So we best be as good as any paid guy out there."

The result is that potential young recruits are shying away from joining after hearing about all the training needed, said Ron King, president of the Firefighters Association of Ontario.

He recalls two young dairy farmers who recently wanted to join a department, but said, "cows gotta be milked seven days a week. We just can't put all that time into training.'"

Ron King, who farms and drives a gravel truck, says training standards have become more rigorous since he started volunteering as a firefighter, 42 years ago.

King, who farms himself and also drives a gravel truck, said training standards have certainly changed since he started volunteering 42 years ago.

"I know maybe it wasn't the safest way to do it, but we learned as we went along … and you didn't do anything silly and crazy at a fire that you shouldn't do. But we learned from experience."

Availability of people

Mitchell said an added challenge in Uniondale is changing demographics and the availability of people.

When he joined the department, half of the members were farmers. Now there's only one full-time farmer around town. And the rest of the volunteer firefighters are typically out of the area during the work day, because of work.

"So that's our biggest challenge for our volunteer department, having guys around for our Monday-to-Friday workday."

Still, they so far haven't had recruitment issues, like some other departments. Jeffrey King, who works in natural gas pipeline construction, joined in 2011. He said it's really all about helping people who need it.

"Without people to do that, who would they have? Out here, that's us."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.