Recruitment remains a challenge for Sask. volunteer firefighters

Volunteer fire departments dispersed across Saskatchewan’s vast landscape are an essential service, but the number of volunteers remains low, according to local firefighters.

Volunteer firefighters receive little or no compensation for risky work

The time commitment, the decline of rural populations and an absence of pay likely remain contributing factors to a lack of volunteer firefighters, said Doug Lapchuk, president of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association (Glenn Reid/CBC)

Volunteer fire departments dispersed across Saskatchewan's vast landscape are an essential service, but the number of volunteers remains low. 

"If we don't get people showing up and joining our fire departments, we're going to see fire departments close up," said Scott Debienne, chief of the Carrot River Fire Rescue.

​"In rural Saskatchewan, we're struggling to get volunteers to show up for training, show up for calls."

The thought of under-staffed departments is scary for Debienne, who has been in the fire service for about 29 years. There is likely to be an absence of qualified volunteers who could help people if the department isn't full, he said. 

An increased commitment and changing lifestyles have likely contributed to the dropping numbers, he said.  
Doug Lapchuk says being a volunteer fire fighter is a mixture of play with a sense of duty to help people in the community as soon as possible, he said. (Terry Lazarou/Submitted)

There are more meetings, practices and training than ever before. But Debienne said proper training is crucial to navigating potentially deadly situations. 

"Maybe they don't direct traffic properly and another vehicle comes in and it hits or injures and kills more people," he said hypothetically. Or someone could perish in a house fire if no one is trained on how to enter, he said.

We are an extension of the hands that are out there to protect everybody.- Doug Lapchuk, president of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association

"I don't want to see that happen in my community."

He's trying to recruit people through social media, because of consistently low numbers. The department could offer training to people, if they commit to serving the community for a period of time. 

"It appears we're getting some buy in from that, and hopefully it continues."​

Saskatchewan has already seen a busy start to the fire season, but the departments don't only respond to fires.

"We are an extension of the hands that are out there to protect everybody," said Doug Lapchuk, president of the Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association.

He is also deputy chief and a nearly 27-year veteran of the Balgonie fire department.

"It's probably the most rewarding and terrifying thing that you'll ever do in your life," said Lapchuk. His dad was involved with volunteer firefighting and now his three sons are, too.

"We don't do it for glory. We certainly don't get paid an awful lot of money to do it. We do it out of a sense of commitment," he said, adding it's also a feeling of wanting to help others and ease their suffering.
Scott Debienne said volunteer firefighter response won't match what people see on television — meaning rapid responses by huge teams of experts. Pictured are trees charred by the fire that swept through the Lumsden Valley on Apr. 27, 2018. (Trent Peppler/CBC)

He, too, noted numbers are down across the board. One challenge is rural communities are shrinking, Lapchuk said.

Like Debienne, he said the time commitment and training could also be a deterrent, but are important "so you're not out there becoming a hazard — you're an asset."

Most volunteer firefighters receive little or no money.

Some departments offer their volunteers $15 to $20 per call, no matter the length, he said. Pay could potentially attract people. 

"It's really hard to get someone to do something for free," he said. 

"Maybe you could appeal to people through the pocketbook side: but the reality is there just isn't a lot of money out there."