Fire departments struggle to retain volunteer ranks

Volunteer fire departments across B.C. are fighting to keep their ranks up to minimum operational levels in spite of the fact volunteer firefighters are paid hourly when they respond to emergencies.

Becoming a volunteer firefighter – commonly called paid-on-call firefighter – involves a serious commitment. Volunteers must respond to emergencies any time of the day or night. There is no shift change or relief guaranteed after hours on an incident and afterward they either try to get a couple hours sleep or return directly to their regular jobs. They also commit many more hours training and servicing equipment.

Volunteers must also meet the same training certification levels as full-time firefighters and, once  trained, can be head-hunted by full-time departments or leave because of work commitments away from the communities they live. Age and other demographics can also contribute to attrition.

Some departments on south Vancouver Island have reported volunteers leaving after serving less than three years – a loss of manpower and the investment in training paid for by the community.

Jason deJong, North Oyster Fire Rescue chief, and five other chiefs of departments serving the Cowichan Valley Regional District are working to develop retention programs.

North Oyster Fire Rescue serves a large rural community that is a mix of farms and residential properties south of Nanaimo. Population growth and density is low and a high percentage of people work away from the community. The department has 18 volunteers, but needs at least 25. Volunteers stay about five years on average. Recent recruitment drives have been successful.

“The recruitment is fine, but then there’s the retention, which I think is the more important issue,” deJong said. “I’m taking this to the CVRD chiefs to see what we can brainstorm on a regional level, with the six of us. I think all the fire departments in the region, the Island and the province have to be on board with this and come up with solutions.”

Gabriola Island has two fire halls. Of 30 positions, 27 are filled.

Rick Jackson, department chief, said he would like to have 40 firefighters in the ranks.

Gabriola’s paid-on-call firefighters are paid from $11 to $15 per hour depending on training and stay an average of five years. Some have volunteered for more than 15 years.

“We have a unique problem in that we’re turning into an island of old geezers,” Jackson, 60, said. “We’re getting less and less people who can afford to live on this island and make a living.”

It means a lot of people have to work off island.

Gabriola’s isolation from other regional fire departments means it can’t count on mutual aid from other halls, so training is extensive and includes getting a Class 3 driver’s licence.

“We give them everything we can afford to give them and keep them interested and wanting to do it,” Jackson said.

Sometimes the high level of medical training – fire departments respond to far more medical aid calls and motor vehicle accidents than fires – works against Gabriola when firefighters take positions that become available with B.C. Ambulance Service.

Women are beginning to fill Gabriola’s ranks.

“We have a lot more ladies than we used to,” Jackson said. “I find they make really good firefighters. They’re really dedicated and they’re more likely to study than the guys.”

Ron Lambert, Nanaimo Fire Rescue chief, said full-time firefighters are often drawn from the paid-on-call ranks, but even NFR isn’t immune to head hunting from other departments.

“One of the things we’re looking for is people who have great potential and, of course, they need all the certifications, so volunteer experience is way of getting that and is an important component,” Lambert said. “People can go in to a department and all of a sudden they’re gone because they’ve been hired by somebody.”

NFR  lost a number of  full-time candidates from its paid-on-call ranks because they found jobs in fire departments elsewhere.

“It’s an open market,” Lambert said. “It’s like the private sector. People move around and try to find the best jobs. The volunteer departments fall victim to that. As many as we pull, we lose quite a few as well.”

North Cedar Volunteer Fire Department might be the local exception to the rule.

Boyd Hunter, deputy chief, said the department has a full complement of 30 members. Current volunteers have served with the Cedar department from one to 35 years and 10 volunteers have stayed more than 15 years.

Cedar’s population is growing and new members tend to be 30 years old and older, and are looking for ways to contribute to the community.

“I think that we’re a bedroom community for the city has helped us,” Hunter said. “We have more people with young families and they’re moving here to stay and settle in.”

Still, the time commitment to volunteer firefighting can dissuade some people from joining. Of three recruits who applied recently, only one continued past the initial interview upon learning what the level of commitment is.

“I think it has got more to do with the community than it does with the department,” Hunter said.

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