The Town of the Blue Mountains (TBM) is considering adding four new full-time firefighters to complement their fire services by the end of 2021.
The move would help the fire department bolster its ranks at a time when volunteer firefighters are becoming scarce in the area. The town has struggled to retain volunteer firefighters over the last several years, seeing its numbers drop from 46 volunteers in 2018 to 23 currently.
The hiring of four additional full-time firefighters would double the town's current total from four to eight, and the addition would cost the town $520,000 per year. The move could potentially increase the 2022 budget by 3.6 per cent.
The plan got unanimous support from councillors at a committee of the whole meeting last week, but still has to be ratified at a full council meeting.
Staff raised two issues during the committee meeting: retirements in larger markets are drawing TBM volunteer firefighters out of the region for full-time positions elsewhere, and the cost of living in the area makes it difficult for volunteers to stay.
“We are anticipating for the next two years a significant increase in recruitment from the larger urban areas,” said Shawn Everitt, CAO of TBM. “As retirements start rotating through, we see a big pull of the urban areas again … on our volunteer firefighters.”
Everitt proposed something needed to be done to give volunteers a living wage.
“It’s very similar how impactful the living wage is for councillors as it is for volunteer firefighters,” he said. “As a volunteer firefighter, you have to live in town, similar to a councillor… For volunteer firefighters having to be able to respond in a timely fashion, that living wage is hugely impactful to be able to pull firefighters into the system, and ultimately retain them.”
Council mentioned attainable housing as a possible measure to retain volunteer firefighters, as the cost of living can keep would-be volunteers out of the market.
“If we don’t have young families living here, this is one of the consequences,” said Mayor Alar Soever. “In terms of looking at it from a financial perspective, might it not be better to put some money into providing attainable housing for firefighters and thereby make it attractive for volunteer firefighters to volunteer?”
However, Everitt noted that there are currently few attainable housing options, and that work would have to be done to create more.
“We just don’t have the stock to be able to execute on these great ideas,” Everitt said.
Fire Chief Steve Conn said that part of the solution will be to ramp up volunteer recruitment over the next year.
“We’re going to try to do a very in-depth recruiting this year with volunteer firefighters,” he said. “So if we can reach out through people that we know within the community that would make good volunteer firefighters, we will train them from the bottom up, which we have done for many, many years and continue on with that.”
Councillor Paula Hope pointed out that women are underrepresented in the field, and that they could be a good source for volunteers.
“At this point, statistics are showing that there are not a lot of female firefighters, that is one of the last bastions where there just isn’t a strong presence of women,” she said. “You can imagine at moments of trauma how helpful it would be to have representation from both genders.”
Conn encouraged women to apply to be volunteer firefighters as well.
“If we have volunteer female firefighters come in, by all means, they’re welcome to put their application in, and we train them as much as the guys, and there’s always a spot within the fire department,” he said.
Conn also brought up that the fire department will be reviewing its Fire Master Plan over the course of the fall, and that there will be opportunities for public engagement and input.
“We’re in the midst of a Fire Master Plan review right now, so later this fall we will be doing workshops and consultation to the public as well,” he said. “I encourage everyone to please get involved and bring their ideas forward because this will be the path for the next ten years for the fire department.”
Greg McGrath-Goudie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, CollingwoodToday.ca