'It takes a certain breed': What drives P.E.I.'s volunteer firefighters

Most firefighters on P.E.I. are volunteers who are on call at all hours of the day and night and do hours and hours of training.

The Island has more than 1,100 volunteer firefighters, but only 13 paid full-time positions

Members of the East River, North River and Charlottetown fire departments do mass casualty training to prepare for an emergency. East River Chief Rod MacDonald, left, says volunteers dedicate countless hours to training as well as responding to calls. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

Kent Cook's family was gathered for Christmas dinner, but about 10 minutes before everyone sat down, he was called away.

"Christmas Day, that's my favourite day of the year, I love going to dinner," said Cook, 51. "By the time I got back, everybody had finished eating, but mum had a plate set aside for me."

A volunteer firefighter of 18 years, Cook knows his plans can change at a minute's notice.

He started volunteering with the Kinkora Fire Department, later moving to the Victoria Fire Department — where he's now first captain.

Kent Cook, 51, is first captain with the Victoria Fire Department. He's been volunteering for 18 years. (Jesara Sinclair/CBC)

Mostly volunteers

Cook is one of more than 1,100 volunteer firefighters throughout the province. Across the Island, there are only 13 paid full-time firefighter positions (in Charlottetown and Summerside), with an additional five part-time positions in Charlottetown.

Across Canada, about 80 per cent of firefighters are volunteers, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs.

These firefighters dedicate countless hours. They're on call at all hours of the day and night, do hours and hours of training and also attend community events.

About 80 per cent of firefighters across Canada are volunteers who complete the same training and respond to the same types of situations as their paid counterparts. Here, members of the East River, North River and Charlottetown fire departments do mass casualty training. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

'You trust each other'

"It just takes a certain breed of person to become a firefighter," said Rod MacDonald, 50, chief of the East River Fire Department, president of the P.E.I. Firefighters Association and a volunteer firefighter of 17 years.

"You develop a whole new family … you train together, you work together, you trust each other and it's a trust that keeps on going when that pager goes off, because if you trust them, things will go right, and if you don't trust them, things can go wrong."

"I love the bonding," Cook said. "You get a group and they're great. You sit around and chat and talk and hear old stories about when the older fellows first started and that and it's like, 'Wow, someday I'd like to be them.'"

Amanda Brazil has been a volunteer firefighter with the Cross Roads Fire Department for more than six years. (Nancy Russell/CBC)

"This is part of my life and part of who I am," said Amanda Brazil, 41, a volunteer of six years with the Crossroads Fire Department. "You look out for each other, and I guess I've taken on that whole — adopted that whole idea of it being family."

'It's OK to cry'

But Brazil also talks about "bad calls," the ones that take an emotional toll on first responders, saying if anything would ever make her question her commitment to the department, it would be those calls.

"You give yourself time, and you reflect and you talk to other members and you start to say, 'No, I've got this. I've got this. This is what we're here to do.'"

Volunteering with the fire department led to her PhD research, which focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder and other effects of stressful calls on volunteer firefighters. She works with the Canadian Mental Health Association, which has peer-led programs for first responders.

Firefighters can end up in traumatic situations that can take an emotional toll. Here, members of the East River Fire Department do motor vehicle incident training. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

Cook used to work as a paramedic, and has PTSD from that work. Because of that, he doesn't attend medical calls the fire department is called to, but when a medical call comes in, he goes to the fire hall to help those who did attend debrief, to make sure they are okay — and let them know they don't have to "suck it up."

"I'm trying to get the stigma out there that it's OK to cry, and when people know that — you're going to have to have day when you cry, and when you don't cry."

Family support essential

MacDonald said being a firefighter can also take a toll on families.

Luckily, his wife Sandra has been supportive ever since he joined the department.

"She's the one that opens the door for me when I go out to the call. If it's in the middle of the wintertime, she'll get up, open the house, start my car and I'm running out the door."

Rod MacDonald says his wife Sandra has been hugely supportive of his work as a volunteer firefighter. He says she holds the door open for him when he gets a call, and warms his car up for him on winter days. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

Their two sons David, 27, and Greg, 24, are also on board with how much time their father spends at the department — they are also both firefighters with the East River Fire Department.

MacDonald said his first question to someone interested in joining the department is always if they've talked it over with their partner.

"It's going to put a lot of strain on your marriage. It's going to put a lot of strain on your kids," he said.

MacDonald's sons David (left) and Greg (right) are also volunteer firefighters with the East River Fire Department. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

Brazil said her 14-year-old son, Tate, and five-year-old daughter, Tallulah, understand when she gets a call that she has to leave. Her daughter has said she wants to be a firefighter when she grows up.

"There's a reward, personally, in terms of having my kids see that I've stepped up to help my community, and for my daughter it's that women can do whatever they want to do," she said.

Amanda Brazil with her daughter Tallulah. Brazil says by being a firefighter, she is showing her daughter than women can do anything they want to. (Submitted by Amanda Brazil)

'No different' than paid firefighters

MacDonald asserts that the firefighters across P.E.I. aren't volunteers — he calls it a "career unpaid job."

"We are no different than Toronto or Moncton or Halifax," he said. "We're doing the same amount of training, we're doing the same kind of calls, and we carry the same equipment. The only difference is we don't get paid, they do. And when it comes to occupational health and safety, there's no difference."

Rod MacDonald says the work firefighters do isn't volunteer work, it's a 'career unpaid job' with highly specialized training. Here, members of the East River, North River and Charlottetown fire departments do mass casualty training. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

P.E.I. volunteers are often paid an honorarium, depending on the department, and are eligible for a $3,000 annual tax credit, and are not charged for vehicle registration.

MacDonald doesn't think there would be any way to afford paying salaries to firefighters across the Island or across the country.

"You would lose a large amount of departments, and then you're response time would increase dramatically to respond to those areas that don't have a fire department … then you've got insurance issues," he said.

'We don't get a lot of thanks'

But people don't always appreciate the work the volunteers do.

"I don't think they think of us until they need us," said Cook, recounting a story of a man who told them they were "pretend firefighters" who just sit around at the hall and chat.

He also has stories of grateful homeowners who were surprised at the speed with which the fire department arrived when they had a fire.

Members of the East River Fire Department do pump training. Chief Rod MacDonald says firefighters don't always get the thanks they deserve from members of the community. (Submitted by Rod MacDonald)

MacDonald said it means a lot when people drop by the hall to thank the firefighters.

"Really we don't get a lot of thanks for what we do," MacDonald said. "We show up, we do our job, we leave."

Recruitment challenges

Departments across the Island have also faced challenges recruiting new firefighters.

Cook said at 51 he's one of the youngest in his department.

MacDonald encourages people who are interested to look at the Canadian Association of Fire Chief's recruitment page, to decide if it's right for them.

"I enjoy it," he said.

"I find it enjoying to respond to people in need. It's a different kind of fun," he said. "It's something that's satisfying to help somebody … it gives you that real nice feeling in your body."