Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: Support for volunteers is a national responsibility

July 26, 2023 
By Vince Mackenzie



Wildfire has become the news story of the summer with more to come as we brace for yet another record setting year in wildfire incidents. It seems everywhere in Canada, something is burning. With all the coverage and wildfire smoke advisories affecting a good percentage of the country, the attention that has been turned toward our firefighters in the national news is unprecedented. Wildfires across Canada have made national headlines almost daily. The fires are so large and complex that we have been importing wildland firefighters internationally. Just recently a provincial government was calling on volunteers to come and assist, but who pays their bills?

With the recent catastrophic fire events overwhelming fire services in both big cities and rural areas, the call has gone out for more volunteers to staff the fire lines. Firefighters, career and volunteer, across this country have been relentless in their efforts to control the fires and protect communities from wildfire threats. When volunteers sign up to their local fire department, they don’t envision being deployed for days on end to an incident. Indeed, we have all been on such deployments, but paying a salary to those who answer the call has not been the common practice. Many times, volunteer firefighters serve alongside other agencies who are being paid a wage while they are on the clock.

Politicians across Canada have been singing the praises of our firefighters. These are the same politicians that we have been lobbying their governments to provide more support for Canada’s fire services like better tax credits, and emergency training and preparedness funding for better resources and equipment.

When these serious events happen, everyone talks about the woes of climate change and the greater frequency and severity. When they are over and the community waits for the next one, the serious talk stops and little action is generated by the government other than committees and initiatives to study the problem. Ever since the joint emergency preparedness funding program was cancelled some 10 years ago, climate emergencies have become more complex.

Smaller municipalities and their volunteer fire departments have stepped up to respond with greater frequency. Canada’s emergency response system would be dead in the water without volunteers staffing fire departments, search and rescue organizations, and non-government agencies. No government in the modern world could ever afford to fund the staffing required on a full-time basis for all those organizations, so volunteers have to staff these groups.

What is lacking is the tangible funding to assist our fire departments. I’m talking about support for the firefighters when they are deployed from their day-time jobs. Many leave their employer on the hook when they respond. Those employers should be recognized for their contribution to Canada’s security during disasters because local expertise is always needed during emergencies since they are more efficient. Firefighters should be compensated once a disaster goes longer than a normal response. Perhaps a national fund should be established to pay for the labour required to maintain and sustain extended operations in emergency zones. 

There are no volunteer cops or other emergency agencies. Why then, do volunteer firefighters, ground search and rescue members or their employers bear the cost of extended operations? The emergency equipment funding needed to support fire departments in wildfire and climate emergencies must be reinstated by Ottawa. Emergency generators, fire fighting, rescue and communications equipment all come with a hefty price tag that fire departments struggle to acquire. In the last year, climate change events have devastated our communities with wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, floods and snowstorms.

As climate change increases our frequency of emergencies, the equation we now see includes more complex incidents being responded to with dwindling or cancelled funding for joint emergency preparedness and less equipment and staffing. I suspect this emergency response crisis will grow larger every year until our politicians realize that fires don’t put themselves out.

It takes dedicated volunteer firefighters and agencies responding from outside big-city Canada. We need more support to keep volunteer labour while mitigating the devastation in our country. As governments sing the praises of our emergency response, it would be nice to see some front-line funding to better equip our municipalities with tools and infrastructure to take care of the next emergency, which is guaranteed to be more severe. Supporting those who volunteer to staff local emergency response agencies is a national responsibility, in my view.


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the current president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association. Email Vince at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince.


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