Fire Fighting in Canada

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Comment: February 2011

As Canadians, we are lucky in innumerable ways. Our education and health care are the envy of much of the world. Most of our neighbourhoods are safe and our kids have incredible advantages and opportunities.

February 8, 2011
By Laura King


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As Canadians, we are lucky in innumerable ways. Our education and health care are the envy of much of the world. Most of our neighbourhoods are safe and our kids have incredible advantages and opportunities. We enjoy the freedom to say what we think without fear of a knock on the door in the night. We are, compared to great swaths of the world, comfortable, safe and secure.

And with that comes a set of assumptions. We assume that when we’re sick, a doctor will help to make us better. We assume that when we send our children to school, they will get an education.

And we assume that when we call 911 on what may be the worst day of our lives, someone is going to come and help.

That last assumption is fine if you live a populous area – Halifax or Lethbridge or Kelowna or Trois-Rivieres or countless others.

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But if you live in a really rural area, you’d better recalibrate your assumptions.

Almost everyone in the Canadian fire service knows the story of Wandering River, Alta. The tiny community on Highway 63 between Edmonton and Fort McMurray suspended emergency services last summer when the seven female volunteer firefighters became overwhelmed by the workload, and quit.

Needless to say, Wandering River is now a bad place to have the worst day of your life, a fact yet more complicated because Highway 63 is regarded as one of the most dangerous in Alberta. Crash victims now have to wait as long as 90 minutes for a response from a neighbouring jurisdiction.

The plight of departments like Wandering River was among the factors that spurred the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association to look deeply
at volunteer firefighter recruitment and retention, the topic of this month’s cover story on page 10. Long before Wandering River announced its closure in June, other Alberta departments had disbanded daytime service because their volunteer firefighters weren’t available during business hours.

It doesn’t matter what industry you work in, finding the best people and then holding on to them is a challenge.

If you’re a leader in a volunteer fire department – where you have to recruit people and get them to work either for free or for a very modest stipend – those challenges are exacerbated tenfold.

When your small, rural, volunteer force is run off its feet, even the most minuscule and mundane task has the potential to be the straw that breaks the back of an overworked firefighter.

So, in addition to trying to help find volunteers, the Alberta association is providing departments with a tool kit of helpful templates, tips and best practices on a range of things from setting up recruitment drives to sample welcome letters  to spouses of new volunteer recruits.

Canadians are right to have an expectation of security – including the expectation that pretty much wherever we are, when bad things happen, someone is going to help.

Governments need to understand that their role in that equation includes supporting the men and women who answer the call as volunteers, and, even further, supporting the leadership to make it easier to recruit and retain those people.

Here’s hoping that message gets through in Alberta and – as we always hope – that the rest of the country pays heed.


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