New Brunswick

Volunteer firefighters cut from front line in Kennebecasis Valley

The Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department will no longer be using volunteer firefighters on the front lines, in the hopes of saving money.

Modified role expected to save $75,000 annually, fire department says

The Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department will stop using volunteers to fight fires, effective immediately.

The joint board of fire commissioners has directed Fire Chief Bill Ireland to "modify the role" of the approximately 20 volunteers in a bid to make better use of limited resources and save about $75,000 annually.

The per capita cost of each volunteer firefighter jumped to almost $4,000 in 2014, up from $500 in 2005, the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department says. (Courtesy of the Kennebecasis Valley Fire Department)
"There is no evidence to suggest that using volunteers to fight fires yields any operational advantage to the department or increase in safety for the community," a statement issued by the fire department on Monday said.

"By evolving our deployment model and adopting an auxiliary or support role for volunteer members, the department can more appropriately align its personnel and financial resources," said Ireland.

"This will ultimately create a more efficient and effective overall operation," he said.

Rothesay has had volunteer firefighters since 1924, when the first all-volunteer fire department was formed.

But the cost of maintaining a volunteer complement of front-line firefighters has increased 450 per cent since 2005 and the per capita cost of each volunteer firefighter has jumped to almost $4,000 this year, up from $500 in 2005, according to the statement.

An increase in honorariums payments, increased insurance coverage and benefits, more uniforms and better personal protective equipment, plus mandatory fees of $444 per member for the Firefighters Compensation Act have all led to the escalation of costs, it said.

Response rate less than 5%

Meanwhile, fewer than one in 20 volunteers respond when needed, on average, and the historical incident attendance rate of volunteers is less than five per cent per member.

"A week and a half ago, on a Tuesday, around this time of day, in the mid-morning, we had a call for a fire. And because of the time of day, and people have jobs and all those kinds of other commitments, we had one volunteer out of our 20 respond to that," the chief told CBC News.

"Later that weekend, at night, we had a garage fire, and none of our volunteers showed up. So as I say, it's part of the issue but not entirely the issue," he said.

If you don't treat them right, if you don't listen to them, if you don't respond to the needs of the volunteers, they're going to leave.- Michael Cole, former volunteer firefighter

Kennebecasis Valley Fire Fighters' Association president Mark Braydon said he wasn't ready to comment on the newly-announced changes.

But former 20-year volunteer Michael Cole said he disagrees with the decision. Cole says volunteer participation is down because the role of volunteers has been eroding.

"You reap what you sow," he said. "If you don't treat them right, if you don't listen to them, if you don't respond to the needs of the volunteers, they're going to leave."

Cole argues taxpayers' money spent on one full-time firefighter's salary could go much further with a bunch of volunteers.

Rothesay Mayor Bill Bishop says he'll take the chief at his word that there are enough full-time firefighters to protect 30,000 residents in Rothesay and neighbouring Quispamsis who don't report many fires.

The fire budget, split 40-60 between Rothesay and Quispamsis, has been steadily climbing to $4.3 million and can't grow any more, said Bishop.

"If the chief is getting rid of the volunteers, then he'd better be prepared to stand pat as far as getting additional funds from Rothesay council," he said.

The fire board contends modifying the role of volunteers will help address ongoing concerns about attendance, recruitment and retention.