When there’s an emergency, firefighters are often the first on the scene, and not only when there’s a fire. In rural areas, they deal with vehicle accidents and other emergency calls, so a shortage of firefighters can be a serious concern.
Firefighters in rural areas perform essential services, but they have other jobs. Over 10,000 of the 13,500 firefighters in Alberta are volunteers.
In 2009, the Alberta Fire Chiefs and Department of Municipal Affairs conducted a study and found a severe lack of volunteers in the seven different regions outlined in the Alberta Emergency Management Guidelines.
“We found that there was a real lack of numbers. In many cases, there were not enough members to respond to an emergency call,” said Bill Purdy, executive director of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association and deputy chief of the Wabamun fire department. “What would happen is that they would advertise that there would be no 9-11 services available from the morning until whatever time in the evening.”
The Alberta Fire Chiefs collaborated with Volunteer Alberta to develop recommendations and has received funding from Municipal Affairs to create educational campaigns encouraging people to join their local departments.
Firefighters receive training and funding from their municipalities.
“Most of the municipalities in Alberta are very supportive of the volunteer firefighter system,” said Purdy. “A number of the municipalities are also paying their volunteers a paid on-call fee.”
Volunteers take a module of courses approved by the National Firefighters Association. Unlike professional firefighters who take the full module in six months, volunteers can take several years to complete the courses.
“Once they get the modules that show the techniques and the fundamentals of fighting fire and the proper use of protective equipment and self-contained breathing apparatus, then we can start using these people in an active role,” said Purdy.
Volunteer firefighters with a substantial number of hours receive a small tax credit for their efforts.
Retention is another issue for volunteer fire departments. If volunteer firefighters are recruited after the age of 24, they will stay with the departments for a long time, as they are more likely to remain in the community.
“Most of the volunteers, especially from rural Alberta, may come out of high school, have a job in one of the communities and they may stay there for five years. Afterwards, they may get a promotion and move on or they set their sights on something else,” he said.
Actual fires only make up 20 per cent of the emergencies handled by firefighters. Firefighters handle medical aid calls, vehicle accidents and water rescue.
Purdy acknowledges that firefighting is a tough job, and that some firefighters quit because of traumatic experiences.
Gordon Graves is a cattle rancher and volunteer fire chief at Iron River, population 500. Graves is one of the founders of the Iron River fire department, established in 1989. He started as an officer and worked his way up.
“We didn’t have fire coverage and we did anything and everything to get it,” he said. “Our response was out of Bonnyville and if you were lucky, it took 40 minutes, but in most cases, it was an hour plus.”
Local residents petitioned the region to establish the fire department. His volunteers respond to security system alarms, wildfire, land, vehicle and farm machinery fires. Fire departments within regions have mutual aid agreements with other local fire departments as well as partnerships with the Bonnyville Regional Fire authority and firefighters from Sustainable Resource Development. Graves also has partnerships with some of the oil companies in the area.
“I can call on them to bring me some tankers if I need,” he said.
The Iron River fire department currently has 34 volunteers. Some of these volunteers can only offer evening or weekend hours.
“I’ve got a good mix of my regulars and what I call my secondary line, whom I call on whenever they’re available,” he said.
Volunteers include acreage owners, oilpatch workers, retirees, farmers and stay-at-home mothers.
Some of the volunteers have developed a high level of skill, while others have limited expertise and can only drive the fire truck.
Rural firefighters have an additional challenge because they have a higher likelihood of knowing the people they are assisting in an emergency.
“There are some mental issues that come with that,” said Graves, who has helped family members and close friends. He’s taken a few courses about the emotional stress of dealing with traumatic situations and is careful to discuss these issues with his firefighters.
The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association has started a website http://www.albertavolunteerfirefighters.ca to provide information to potential volunteers.
“Most people who do it, they get fulfilment and the fulfilment is that they have helped somebody,” said Purdy.