I spent many hours talking to some of our multi-decade members of Canada’s Fire scene through my articles celebrating Fire Fighting in Canada’s 65th birthday this year. Amongst them are those who joined the fire service when there was a waiting list just to volunteer. This is a problem many of today’s volunteer department chiefs would love to have. The sense that it is getting more difficult to find and keep volunteers is an ongoing conversation nationwide. A feeling of urgency is beginning to develop alongside the simmering concern. Both Chief Tom DeSorcy’s Volunteer Vision article for this edition, and Chief Vince MacKenzie’s in November, call attention to finding volunteer firefighters.
The feeling that people are just too busy to volunteer seems widely held. Statistics Canada gathers data on volunteering in Canada, and it released 2018 survey figures in 2021 that showed about eight in 10 Canadians volunteered, formally or informally. Formal volunteering is self-evident, informal volunteering counts activities such as driving someone to an appointment or simply helping someone outside the household. The organizations with the highest levels of volunteer support are hospitals, religious institutions, and sports. Volunteers dedicated an average of 111 hours a year to hospitals.
Being a volunteer firefighter is different and particular in its demands to other volunteering activities. There may be monetary compensation. Volunteer fire fighting can be a “farm team” path to career fire fighting. Fire fighting requires a higher level of training than some of other forms of community giving, like helping out at the local church fundraiser. In some places, like Ontario, there are mandatory minimum training requirements for all firefighters. While being a volunteer firefighter is unique, fire departments are not unique in seeking the same time-generous civic minded individuals who are giving over a 100 hours a year at the hospital.
Fire departments need people to be on call, give their time and understand the rewards of doing so. This last bit will be key as the volunteer fire service, making up over 80 per cent of the nation’s fire service, figure out their next move with volunteers on the decline. The Great Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Census, conducted by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs in 2021, estimated the total number of volunteers at 100,000 in comparison to 126,000 in 2016.
The concern surrounding the numbers of volunteer firefighters in Canada is warranted and may require some creative thinking on the part of the fire service. Being a volunteer firefighter is an honourable, social and rewarding calling that provides someone with many new skills and experiences. I haven’t said anything here you don’t all know well. There’s no magic bullet for the problem but keeping in front and centre will mobilize a creative approach and new ways to attract these vital members.
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