Rural fire departments struggle to find volunteers

By Carl Clutchey
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
The Chronicle-Journal

Having 15 to 20 committed volunteers at your disposal doesn’t seem like a lot to ask — unless you’re running a small-town fire department.

That’s the challenge O’Connor Township’s Henry Mattas and other Canadian volunteer fire chiefs overseeing rural departments have been facing for many years.

Mattas, who has been involved in firefighting for nearly half a century, said on most emergency calls he is lucky to have five “active” volunteers who can respond to a house fire, highway collision or medical emergency.

Technically, O’Connor’s list of volunteer firefighters amounts to more than five, “but some people just don’t show up” when a call comes, Mattas, who has been the township’s chief for 30 years, said on Thursday.

Mattas said it’s not difficult to understand why: people are preoccupied with employment and family concerns, or they might work shift.

Another factor is the high standard of training required to be a member of a fire department these days, even though the majority of small municipal departments consists of volunteers.

The training “is more demanding than what it used to be, the rules and regulations are always changing,” Mattas said. “People say they don’t want to do this anymore.”

Though new recruits are hard to come by, O’Connor Township’s Highway 595 fire hall is well-equipped: it sports a pumper and a tanker truck, as well as rescue and side-by-side all-terrain vehicles.

The pumper truck is almost 25 years old, but Mattas said it’s still in good shape. That’s a good thing, since the cost of buying a new one is more than $400,000, a big-ticket item in a municipality of less than 700 people.

Finding volunteers among a small population isn’t easy, although O’Connor’s municipal newsletter exhorts its citizens to step up: “Our community needs more volunteers to ensure that in the event of an emergency, our residents will be taken care of as fast as possible.”

The municipality is also looking for volunteers to help clear the township’s outdoor skating rink, once the weather feels more like winter.

On the positive side, the number of fires O’Connor’s department responded to this year was minimal. Mattas said smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors are in greater use, which likely has played a role in reducing fire calls.

The majority of calls, Mattas said, are medical emergencies, with firefighters going to an accident scene and stabilizing an injured person until paramedics arrive.

A full-time ambulance station operated by Superior North Emergency Medical Services is located nearby in Kakabeka Falls.

“We’re lucky to have that,” Mattas remarked.

Though volunteer firefighters receive honorariums based on the number of calls in which they assist, it’s not much to live on, Mattas said.

According to the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, too many of the country’s 90,000 volunteer firefighters “pay out of pocket to cover expenses associated with the service they provide to their community.”

In 2013, the federal government began offering a $3,000 tax credit to those who volunteer with their local departments, but the amount “has not kept up with cost of living,” the association said.

A private member’s bill put forward by Vancouver Island NDP MP Gord Johns is calling on the government to increase the tax credit to $10,000.