Attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters is one of the biggest challenges faced by fire departments in Ontario's rural areas, Andrew Torrance says.
“It's a problem not unique to us,” says Torrance, chief of the Sundridge-Strong Volunteer Fire Department. “It's unique to any rural fire department and any area that needs volunteer support.”
Sundridge-Strong is set up to have 29 firefighters. However, Torrance says it's had between only 20 and 23 volunteer firefighters for the past few years.
“I've been here a number of years and have never seen the number at 29,” says Torrance, who took over as fire chief in September 2018. “I think 20 to 23 is the number we can expect for some time.”
Torrance believes the service is fortunate to have its current contingent of volunteers. That's because of the time commitment after the province changed the training mandate for all fire services in Ontario.
While Torrance supports having all firefighters meet National Fire Protection Association standards, it's demanding.
In Sundridge-Strong's case, volunteer firefighters have a training session every Monday that easily runs from 6 to about 9:30 pm. Then there's one training day every quarter, either on a Saturday or Sunday. Torrance says many firefighters also further their training by attending the Ontario Fire College or another provincially endorsed training location on their own time.
This also involves completing online certification courses.
Many of the volunteers have regular jobs which take them outside the region, “so on Monday evenings it could be challenging for them to make it to training,” says Torrance.
“And besides their career and some travelling for work, they also have to balance their commitment to us with their family time and other interests.
“Time is the most precious commodity,” Torrance says. “All our people balance their personal schedules to make the effort to be here.”
Being a volunteer firefighter requires a significant time commitment from people who also have to be ready to drop whatever they're doing when a fire call comes in.
Torrance emphasizes that he's not critical of standardized training. But in small rural communities, that extra time the volunteers need to put in makes it hard to keep them for long periods of time.
Sundridge-Strong recently lost two long-term firefighters.
“That loss was impactful,” Torrance says, explaining that it takes six to eight months to train a volunteer.
“One had about three years experience and the other more than three years,” he says. “They were trained and had been out on many calls. When we lose people like that it affects our service to the community because their experience leaves with them.”
As for why they left, Torrance says the time commitment became too much.
To make matters worse, both firefighters had local full-time jobs, meaning they were available to fight fires on weekdays.
“A good number of our calls are during the day Monday to Friday,” Torrance says. “So when those (day time) folks are no longer with us, it means our overall response could be affected.
“But, thankfully, we still have some people who are day-time responders because they work in the community.”
For Torrance, recruitment is something he doesn't lose sight of and he uses whatever means he can, like social media or public platforms, to “alert people of our need for firefighters.” And after they're trained, the hope is they remain volunteers for several years.
Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.
Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget