Fire Fighting in Canada

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Volunteer Vision: The results are in

November 4, 2021
By Vince MacKenzie

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I had the privilege to be involved with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) Great Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Census this past summer. Our CAFC Answer the Call committee of firefighters serving from across the country commissioned the census as a fresh new jumping off point and a tool to have a full understanding of the strength and makeup of volunteer fire services across this country. The census day was April 30 and we asked volunteer fire departments to provide data based on that day specifically in the life of their department. 

The results are in from the 1143 volunteer and composite fire departments who sent in data. Of these, 54 per cent were totally volunteer and 46 per cent were composite fire departments comprising of some full-time or part-time paid staff. Our survey revealed, to no-one’s surprise, that the number of volunteer firefighters in Canada have declined. What we didn’t know was by how much. It was once reported in 2016 that there were 126,000 volunteer firefighters in our country. If those numbers were accurate, the current data measured a decline in that there are just 99,919 volunteer firefighters determined this year. If those numbers are correct, we have potentially lost one-fifth of the volunteer base in just five years.  

The survey reported that there are approximately 11,000 female volunteers in our fire departments, making up 11 per cent of our volunteer fire fighting workforce, indicating that we have a way to go to increase gender diversity in our fire service and we would be wise to target this demographic for continued recruiting success.

The census showed that 32 per cent of Canada’s volunteer fire service is over the age of 50. We found that 31,500 members are in that age bracket. So along with the aging population as a whole, and speaking to generation gaps, we have an aging fire service as well. This highlights recruitment challenges ahead to find younger volunteers in decades ahead to fill the spots.  

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The total number of organized fire departments in Canada is down from 3500 in 2016 to 3200 in this year. This is probably due to regionalization of departments and I’m sure in some cases smaller departments cease to exist or had gotten swallowed up by larger composite full-time services and morphed into full time career departments in larger urban centres. 

In relation attendance, 75 per cent of firefighters meet the call and training attendance expectations of their respective fire department. Sadly, it shows that 25 per cent don’t meet attendance requirements and therefore grows the challenge of staffing engagement when the workforce we have suffers with too little time available to fully participate. 

There were many other data sets in the survey conducted. Some included the definition of a volunteer firefighter and the types of services now provided by volunteer and composite departments other than fire fighting. The vacancy rate of fire fighting positions not recruited in departments was also measured. Moving forward there is still much work to be done; I have highlighted only a few statistics, more data was collected, but to highlight it all in one page column is difficult. Watch for future issues and we will openly communicate all the data on the CAFC website.

The CAFC will to repeat the census in 2022 to improve the response rate and to monitor current data. Please ensure your fire department is counted on Census day 2022. CAFC will also be reinvigorating the Answer the Call recruitment program and campaign to assist departments in recruitment efforts.  

In summary, the lessons of this story have to be for our three levels of government to be aware of some sobering facts. The cost efficient volunteer fire service is declining while being expected to expand specialized emergency services in our communities.  Even greater support of Canada’s fire services in general has to be a focus of this newly elected federal government. The enhanced safety of citizens, firefighters, and the environment depend on all our greater advocacy not only in reactive fire protection but in proactive public education, emergency preparedness and management, and the effect of climate. Coming from PAST NORMAL we tend to call this a NEW NORMAL, I believe we are in the NOW NORMAL. The numbers and data have proven it. 


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 past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at firechief@townofgfw.com and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince. 


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