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June 7, 2013
By Rob Evans

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June 7, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. - While traveling to and from the Alberta fire chiefs show in Red Deer last week, about a 90-minute trip each way, I found myself checking in along the way on social media sites. Mostly I was doing this to annoy a co-worker at Public Safety Communications in Calgary, who finally noticed and called me a couple of choice words. It really is fun having friends at work who do not take themselves too seriously and can laugh with you.

June 7, 2013, Redwood Meadows, Alta. – While traveling to and from the Alberta fire chiefs show in Red Deer last week, about a 90-minute trip each way, I found myself checking in along the way on social media sites. Mostly I was doing this to annoy a co-worker at Public Safety Communications in Calgary, who finally noticed and called me a couple of choice words. It really is fun having friends at work who do not take themselves too seriously and can laugh with you.

But looking back, I started to actually take notice of how many fire departments I went by in that short time on my way to the conference. If I am correct, I travelled through 11 different fire department districts while on the road. Of those, two departments – Calgary and Airdrie – are staffed by paid firefighters; volunteer, paid-on-call or paid firefighters staff the other halls 24/7/365.

One of the keynote speakers in Red Deer, Camrose Fire Chief Peter Krich, spoke about efforts throughout Alberta to recruit volunteers to Alberta’s smaller brigades. There are a lot of people putting in incredible amount of hours working on this project. Hats off to all of them but I have to be the realist here and ask the question, is it all for naught? I mean do people in small-town Alberta, and for that matter Canada, really want to put the effort required into being today’s “volunteer” firefighter?

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The dedicated Redwood Meadows Emergency Services team at training Tuesday night. Photo by Rob Evans.

It was pointed out to me after my presentation in Red Deer that we are lucky enough at Redwood Meadows Emergency Services (RMES) to have a large center like Calgary from which to draw members, which is true. Along with that, though, also comes a high turnover rate. Resume builder, farm team, the minors – all terms used for our departments that is accepted because, quite frankly, that is reality in our world. There are many good people who live in our small town, our response area in the County of Rocky View, but they are busy with other duties. Coaching soccer, working in the city, spending time with family are all things that these residents do and they have no interest putting in hours needed to be the professional, volunteer fire department that we have built. We are not alone. This is common throughout the province and country.

Over the past two weeks, our members have accumulated hundreds of man-hours responding, training and participating in public-relations functions. Callouts included a fatality collision, two MCIs, major medical calls including working with Calgary’s STAR1 air ambulance, conservation officers and other mutual-aid partners. Training involved an NFPA 472 Operations course as well as weekly training curriculum at our station. And the PR event was an emergency service showcase put on by a mutual-aid partner. A big commitment, you bet, and one that none of use takes lightly. The problem is, the required commitment does scare away many in the community who may be thinking of joining the department. Not an easy fix any way you look at it.

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RMES crews participate in a hazmat evolution during an NFPA 472 Operations course, one of multiple commitments in the last little while for the department's firefighters, along with call responses.

More reality: I know you cannot tell by reading this, but reality interrupted me in the form of my daughter, Michaela, at first, and then our weekly training. Our current class of recruits had their eyes opened during some car-fire evolutions Tuesday night. They quickly learned that no matter how much foam and water is used on a quarter panel of a car, the interior fire just will not go out – ever!

It was a fun night of learning and mentoring though, and ended with the cliché “fire behind” photo, as Hope Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy pointed out on my Facebook page. As I commented back to Tom, I had included a similar picture from the past three years in my presentation in Red Deer. In the 2010 picture, 36 per cent of the people in it have moved on from our department. We seem to have no problem getting people to apply and join our team, but retention is certainly an issue. Recently we have started to offer the best equipment for our firefighters to use – new trucks, new SCBA, new turn-out gear. Sadly, it is not enough. There are bigger and better things than RMES out there. Reality strikes again. We are all very familiar with reality.

Day to day we deal with realities that many simply cannot, including those citizens in our communities who want to help but are unable to make the commitment required. Many of my peers may not want to hear this, but maybe it is time we all had a check-in with the reality of recruiting volunteer responders. Maybe the volunteer firefighter is slowly going away and we will have to find ways to convince our councils about ways to compensate members. Another reality check.

(You can read Tom DeSorcy’s take on paying to volunteer here.)

Rob Evans is the chief fire officer for Redwood Meadows Emergency Services, 25 kilometres west of Calgary. Evans attended the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology in 1989 and studied photojournalism. In 1992, he joined RMES after taking pictures of an interface fire and making prints for the department. He has his NFPA 1001 level II certification, NFPA 472 Operations and Awareness (hazmat), NFPA 1041 level I (fire service instructor), Dalhousie University Certificate in Fire Service Leadership and Certificate in Fire Service Administration and is a registered Emergency Medical Responder with the Alberta College of Paramedics. He lives in Redwood Meadows with his wife, a firefighter/EMT with RMES, and three children. Follow him on Twitter at @redwoodwoof.


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