By JIM MELDRUM
Retention of volunteer fire fighters can be difficult but the fire service in Slave Lake has come up with an answer to such a challenge.
By JIM MELDRUM
Volunteer municipal fire departments across Canada are faced with many common challenges. Training requirements are more expansive and specialized while public expectations and demands are increasing. Fire fighters are aging, while new quality recruits are increasingly more difficult to find. It is perennially difficult to generate enthusiasm in the experienced volunteer ranks between calls with routine training sessions. Retention of current fire fighters is a challenge, with increasing work, family constraints, and of course normal mobility of the work force. Here is Slave Lake's stab at a solution.
Putting their heads together during the winter of 2004-05, fire fighters Kim Romaniuk, Jim Meldrum, Steve Beare and Deputy Chief Jamie Coutts came up with an idea.
Why not address both the shortage of new volunteer fire fighter recruits in the community and at the same time provide meaningful leisure time activities for local youth by establishing a Junior Firefighter program?
They began to research similar programs in other municipalities but found little that suited their needs. It was then that the team decided to develop its own home-grown solution.
Initial priorities established
The initial priorities established were that the program needed to have substance and structure and it should be fun and exciting for the teens. Additional objectives were that the youth should learn something, and it could be a step in preparing them for a career in emergency services, should they choose. The training and certification would need to be recognized broadly, be pertinent to the community and potentially useful to the fire department.
The initial team met to set up some additional logistical criteria for the program:
· The timeline for the program would be late spring and all summer with completion in early fall.
· Juniors must be separate from regular fire fighters, but incidental and casual contact between the two was encouraged.
· Meetings would be on regular Tuesday training nights with the occasional Saturday session.
· Juniors would not respond to emergency calls or drive fire apparatus.
· The junior program would be issued a pumper and be responsible for it – the unit would continue to be used for normal operations.
· The entry level fire fighter program by the Fire Etc school in Vermilion would be the basis of the program curriculum. Supplements would include vehicle extrication, patient handling and live fire training.
· The age range of participants was set at 14 to 17, for both boys and girls.
· The teens would get full turnout gear and coveralls issued to them.
· The program would be marketed to the two major high schools in town.
· There would be an application procedure, which would include parental consent forms and use of photo permission forms.
· There should to be some sort of parental and junior recognition in a barbecue and windup/graduation ceremony.
· The program would hopefully have a high public profile within the local media and community at large.
· Visibility in the community would include participation in the local parade and the fire prevention week open house.
· Future expansion would include the possibility of incorporating other halls into the program.
How did we measure success after year one? One of the junior recruits from last year's graduation turned 18 years old and was accepted as a regular fire fighter in the following fall. Of the original eight juniors, six of them re-applied to the program and returned the following year.
As well, participant numbers expanded, by accepting five additional enthusiastic recruits in year 2 from 100 or so applications. Regular articles and features in the local newspaper and we had excellent and broad-based community support. The kids are held in high esteem amongst their peers in school. Also, we received positive evaluation forms from all participants.