Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: May 2009

I’m proud to know so many great volunteer firefighters. They are very professional and their jobs are among the hardest of any profession. Let me explain.

April 21, 2009
By Brad Patton

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I’m proud to know so many great volunteer firefighters. They are very professional and their jobs are among the hardest of any profession. Let me explain.

I know of no other profession, full time, part time or volunteer, that can page its members 24/7, have people drop what they are doing and respond within minutes, then arrive at an unfamiliar job site where there is a high-risk and high-gain situation involving people and property.

By comparison, full-time firefighters, police officers, doctors and dentists have the luxury of time to prepare for work. They know when they are going to work and for how long. Being able to plan your shift while getting ready for an important job like saving and protecting lives and property is a gift a volunteer firefighter will never know.

Wouldn’t it be great to know even an hour or two before your pager was activated so you had time for a quick meal, a nap or to say goodbye and put on some warm clothes? How about being mentally prepared? Others have an opportunity to brace themselves before going to work. Sometimes it’s reading a report or showing up at the office or fire hall a little early to ease into the day. It would be an interesting test to see how many other professionals would last in their jobs if they were thrust from their personal activities into a tense job site in minutes every time their employers called them. I’m guessing few professionals would find this easy. Some wouldn’t last very long.

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Volunteer firefighters know most of the people in their communities and this makes the job a lot harder. Going from playing with your kids one minute to extricating your neighbour’s children the next is emotionally traumatic and many people couldn’t do it time and time again. All firefighters give their very best all the time but when it’s your cousin’s house that’s burning, or a longtime friend’s barn, it’s that much harder to see the losses and the pained familiar faces.

Volunteer firefighters usually operate in rural settings and never know the joy of hydrants. Fire fighting would be so much easier if all we had to do was make two hose connections to  complete the water supply. The amount of time and effort that goes into setting up a rural water supply is often daunting. It is a skill set all on its own. First, figure out how much water will you need – 20,000 gallons or a million – then determine how many pumpers are needed at the static water source, how many tankers are needed and where they’re coming from, and then deal with a complex system of holding, delivering and pumping water. Now do it at 3 a.m., at minus 15 C with a 25-kilometre wind – after working all day at your real job. Water is our ammunition and without it we lose. A good water supply officer and delivery team is just as important as the incident commander or the firefighter on the hose.

Inevitably, with volunteers, staffing levels are disorganized at the onset of every alarm. I’m jealous of incident commanders who know the complement of every arriving apparatus at an emergency. Every call we get brings a different group of colleagues. In most other professions, employees know who they are going to work with and have already figured out the work flow. And, they know a supervisor will oversee their work. Knowing how many people are in your work crew or team removes a lot of stress and allows everybody to concentrate on their own tasks. We never know how many firefighters are going to show up at an emergency or how well they will work together. One time, the emergency apparatus shows up with six firefighters on board – one driver, two captains, three firefighters. An hour later at the next call, there are three firefighters for the same type of call. As always, volunteer firefighters and officers dig deep to make it work.

Then there is the pay rate for volunteers. For the amount of time they give, what they do and the risks they take, I find the pay levels for most volunteer outfits embarrassing. They truly give more than they ever take.

Last but not least, let’s look at the chiefs of volunteer departments. They make it all work safely, efficiently and at a cost that should encourage councillors or fire boards to engage in some hero worship. If you ran this type of service in the private sector your year-end bonus would perhaps rival that of a bank CEO.

To the volunteer firefighters of this country: What you give your communities can never be measured in dollars or time. While others may talk about making their communities a better place to live, you are doing it.


Brad Patton is fire chief for the Centre Wellington Volunteer Fire Rescue Department in Ontario, one of the largest volunteer departments in the province, with stations in Fergus and Elora.


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