The town's population is growing fast. And so is the workload on its firefighters

Service calls to the Strathroy-Caradoc fire department jumped nearly 40 per cent last year, in part due to the region's booming population and more post-pandemic activity, its fire chief says.

Firefighters responded to 1,371 calls last year, up from 929 in 2021 and 950 in 2020, said a new report to politicians this week.

Chalk that up in part to Strathroy-Caradoc's growing population, said Chief Brent Smith. The largely rural municipality of about 24,000 has grown by 14 per cent since 2016, according to the latest census figures.

"People are (also) out and travelling around to work post-pandemic," he added by email.

The figures also reflect department tracking of all events involving fire services, not just "lights-and-sirens type of calls," he cautioned. That includes fires, crashes, medical events, burn permits and complaints, and fire and safety complaints.

There were actually slightly fewer fires last year. Firefighters faced 23 blazes that did damage totalling more than $2.27 million last year, down from 26 fires and $2.8 million in damage in 2021.

Unattended cooking, careless disposal of smoking materials and faulty utilities and equipment were the most common causes, Smith said.

The municipality has fire stations in Mt. Brydges, Strathroy and Melbourne. The first two stations have felt the spike in demand the most, Smith noted.

The increase in demand is taking up "significantly more" of firefighters' time. A typical department firefighter spends 750 hours a year in training, maintenance, public education events and responding to calls.

Another challenge is ensuring volunteer and paid firefighters are up to speed on training. Under an Ontario law introduced last year, firefighters must meet minimum training standards for specific jobs. Before, firefighters would receive certification voluntarily.

That has required "significant" extra training to bring all paid, on-call firefighters up to standard, Smith said. "Thankfully, our firefighters have risen to the task."

Smith suggested that strain is being felt by fire services provincewide, more so in municipalities experiencing rapid growth.

One sign of a return to pre-pandemic activities is the 412 burn permits issued by the department last year – a sharp increase from 259 in 2021 and 273 in 202.

Firefighters did 376 fire inspections in 2022 and issued 245 non-compliance orders. With the addition of a full-time fire inspector, the department aims to do as many as 50 inspections a month this year.

Officials are working to present options to council to help meet rising demand, Smith said. But there's no easy fix.

"Given the new mandatory training standards, hiring more paid on-call firefighters does not solve the problems quickly," he said.

Training firefighters takes at least 1-1/2 years and must be done within 24 months, Smith said. "All of this while trying to retain firefighters . . . feeling the added pressure of all their other responsibilities and commitments."

There are numerous projects in store for 2023, including exploring a modified tiered-response agreement with Middlesex-London paramedic services and developing a new software and paging system to streamline reports, plans and paging, the report said.

One priority is to deliver a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) resiliency program, Smith said.

"Critical incident stress and PTSD are very real problems with firefighters and all first responders, including our dispatch people," he said.

Fire responders are twice as likely to suffer from PTSD because of the traumatic events they often face, Ontario's Labour Ministry says.

A support program would offer firefighters "resiliency tools" and educate their families on how to help, Smith said..

"It is every fire department's responsibility to have their people able to go home in the same condition as they were before they responded to the calls," he said.

Calvi Leon, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, London Free Press