I have been in the fire service for more than 25 years, seven as a senior officer and five as fire chief in Centre Wellington, Ont. I have always cared for and managed volunteer firefighters. Every year, it seems to get more challenging and I’m beginning to wonder how much longer volunteer departments can last.
The obstacles volunteer chiefs face are daunting. There are about 127,000 volunteer firefighters in Canada. In Ontario alone, it would cost taxpayers more than $1 billion annually to replace the volunteer firefighters with full-time staff. If we were working for private companies and saving that kind of money, the year-end bonus would put our children through university. We don’t work for private companies; we are civil servants. We work for municipal councils and for the province or territory that maintains the standards we adhere to. Most importantly, we work for the community and anyone in our jurisdiction who needs our help.
Some might disagree, but I firmly believe that being a chief for a volunteer department is twice as hard as being a chief for a full-time department and I’m prepared to discuss or debate that with anyone. Our business is very cost effective for the municipality but very difficult for those of us in charge to manage. We do not have the luxury of having a captured work force for 10, 14 or 24 hours a day to do training, equipment maintenance, apparatus checks, fire prevention and education, station duties and respond to alarms.
When I’m at a large emergency calling for all our trucks and mutual aid from surrounding volunteer departments, I often compare the situation to my favourite snack, Bits & Bites. Every handful is completely different than the last one and you just never know what to expect. Some trucks arrive with two or three captains. The next one arrives with two firefighters. The next has a deputy chief and six firefighters on board. As incident commanders, we’re responsible for building teams or sectors from arriving crews, assigning them tasks, tracking them, keeping them safe and working them hard and long. I have worked for a full-time department and one of the biggest differences between full-time and volunteer is how quickly most full-time departments get relief. After just one or two hours, it’s back to the hall because relief has arrived. Volunteer firefighters stay until the incident is over, so it’s not unusual for me to work with the same firefighters for 10 hours or longer on a major alarm.
In a volunteer department, training is one of the most difficult things to manage. I believe all firefighters should be thought of and respected as professionals – people who are knowledgeable, have high moral standards and good ethics, have obtained the necessary skills though training and education and are passionate about providing a service.
It takes four or five years of dedicated training to make a firefighter. Unlike in other professions, fire chiefs don’t hire a fully trained person to do a job. Construction companies hire trained backhoe operators to run backhoes. Dental offices hire qualified dentists. We hire people who we believe, through a series of tests and interviews, have the potential to become good firefighters. Then, we put them though 120 hours of training. And you know who does all that training – other volunteer firefighters. It takes more than 200 hours for training officers to put together lesson plans and instruct recruits. Last year, our 50 volunteer firefighters put in 17,405 hours of training and responded to 564 alarms – that’s about 470 work weeks.
The only way the Canadian system of volunteer fire departments can work effectively is to have firefighters who are well trained, who are given the best equipment and apparatus, who receive fair remuneration and who have the utmost respect of colleagues and the public.
Volunteer firefighters are greatly misunderstood. In my experience, many people believe they receive less of a service from a volunteer department than a full-time or composite department. In truth, the only difference may be response time and often that isn’t even an issue. Still, it appears that the public has no problem with a full-time firefighter being a electrician, plumber or truck driver on the side and doing a very fine job at both chosen careers. So, why can’t we reverse the roles so that a full-time electrician, plumber or truck driver can be a professional volunteer firefighter too, in the eyes of the public and of fellow firefighters?
We can overcome these challenges in running a volunteer fire department. We just need to work together, understand the challenges and create a plan to make it work.
In the August issue of FFIC we will begin to explore how to best manage a volunteer fire department.
Brad Patton, a 25-year veteran of the fire service, is the fire chief in Centre Wellington, Ont. He holds diplomas in advanced fire prevention and advanced fire protection from the Ontario Fire College, and a certificates in fire service management and municipal administration from Mohawk College. Contact him at
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