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Volunteer Vision: Three climate changes of concern

October 27, 2022  By Vince Mackenzie


Every time I watch the news about natural disasters, it seems we are under a climate change attack. In my mind, there is no question that climate change is real, and we are all aware of global warming and the worsening disasters. Unfortunately, I also think that Canada’s fire services are falling victim to two other types of climate changes and global warming is just one of those climates.

Climate change is three-pronged for emergency services and these prongs are the perfect storm for some very challenging times ahead for Canada’s volunteer, composite, and full-time career fire departments.

The first one is the meteorological climate change, or global warming as it’s commonly referred too.  We are feeling the effects of climate change and it increases the level of importance of our fire departments as disasters and weather events become more severe.  

The second climate change is the “global cooling” of volunteerism in general. We see less people willing to step up and volunteer to staff our emergency services. Recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters has become a serious consequence of this cooling. It’s just not volunteers, either. All emergency services are cooling significantly, especially our valued healthcare workers. The stresses and demands of the health care system, plus the strain that our lines of work are placing on individuals, is resulting in less and less people willing to take on that calling. Communities will surely feel the worsening effects in the years to come unless the volunteers of our community are better supported to enable them to stay strong at the levels we enjoyed just a decade ago. Long gone are the days of waiting lists for eligible individuals to wait to enter the ranks of their local fire department. Many of you reading this may have never experienced that in your generation. In the new generations, it is now common to see constant recruitment and retention efforts to keep our first response departments staffed. 

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The “demand climate” is the third prong that is changing before our eyes, and not in an encouraging way.  As other emergency services suffer from the lack of capacity in Canada’s healthcare system, fire departments are getting tasked to fill voids in medical response. As major disasters occur, municipalities are working harder than ever in preparations and emergency management. Fire departments are also taking on roles other than fire and this has morphed into emergency services departments like no other. Our “demand climate” is broadening, and sooner or later this leads to less people willing to take on the tasks and responsibilities in a volunteer role as the tasks increase to interrupt our daily personal lives. 

This has been a busy season for emergencies here in eastern Canada. Forest fires in Newfoundland and Fiona have put the emergency services in the forefront once again. In smaller communities equally hit by devastation of larger cities, with no nearby hospital or police station, Canada’s volunteer fire services are the first boots on the ground in non-urban communities. Volunteers of all groups, from firefighters, to search and rescue agencies, volunteer Red Cross and community and church groups, can well expect to be tasked more than ever. There’s the planning and preparation of emergency, response during the storm to the various events threatening life and property, and then offering recovery services as the community picks up the pieces in the absence of the dwindling volunteer community service groups. From fire fighting and rescue, to food prep, emergency shelter and pet care, many volunteer agencies respond long before governments and the military can mobilize. In many cases, the government’s response is to first support the actions of the volunteer groups and NGO agencies already on the ground. 

The bulk of the damage from Fiona hit communities hard in P.E.I., Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland. Port Aux Basques lost a couple of hundred buildings, many swept out to sea. Infrastructure damage will be in the millions of dollars. There was loss of life, and recovery will take a very long time for some. It was the volunteer fire departments that were first out of the gate in many of those communities.  

While we know that volunteer organizations can accomplish tasks more quickly than any government can ever expect to provide, it’s time for our governments to re-assess and support the volunteers on a larger scale than ever. Larger funding for equipment and better funding to retain and support those that are already working the job are needed so they can weather all three of these climate changes. 


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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