Wanted: Volunteer firefighters for southern New Brunswick

·4 min read

St. Stephen and St. George fire Chief Sean Morton says there's been fewer volunteer firefighters lining up to answer the call in Charlotte County, Fundy Isles, Harvey and the greater Saint John area.

"The younger generation just doesn't seem to be interested like they were 20 or 30 years ago," said Morton.

He's noticed the change over the last 10 to 15 years in 17 volunteer fire departments that largely serve southern New Brunswick. He compared the situation to what's being faced by Lions and Rotary clubs in terms of enrolment.

As a result, Morton said stations are sharing firefighters. Meanwhile, the pandemic has made it harder for some stations to train new recruits.

Training delayed during pandemic

Volunteer firefighter training is half theory and half physical, requiring around 200 hours, or normally a year, to complete, said Sussex fire Chief Bill Wanamaker.

Long Reach Deputy Chief Darren White said his department doesn't do training at all during the orange phase of COVID-19 recovery. He said he had to turn away an interested young man who showed up at the Long Reach Fire Department Tuesday night because of the current orange status.

In Grand Bay-Westfield, Chief Troy Gautreau said training can take longer for his department to complete while in the red, orange and yellow phases of recovery. In the yellow phase, the class is split into two groups and taught on different days in the week. In orange, the groups are split again. There are two days the course is taught a week, for each group, and recruits attend one day every other week. In red, the training is online.

This year, there are 25 new recruits lined up in Charlotte County to take the Firefighter 1 course, which is mandatory to be a fully-fledged firefighter, Morton said.

However, there is online training available. New Brunswick fire marshall Michael Lewis said online training is helping to make training more accessible, and they've seen an increase in trainees by 75 per cent since they launched in the spring.

'A big time commitment': chief

Sussex fire Chief Bill Wanamaker said all the departments are in the same boat with the need for more volunteer firefighters.

"It's a big time commitment as far as what is required for training, and in this day and age both people work and they just don't have the time to dedicate to a service such as a fire department," he said.

Even though they may have fewer volunteers, Wanamaker said it doesn't affect the department's response time nor its ability to be on the scene of a fire to help. Right now, the Sussex fire Department has 32 volunteers, but he said normally it would have closer to 40.

The time commitment depends on the profile of each community, Wanamaker said, in terms of its geographic size and its call volume.

The Long Reach Fire Department recently put out a call for volunteers on their Facebook page, but White said it's something the department does quarterly.

He said he's worried about the number of volunteers that are close enough to respond to emergencies during the day. His department has 34 volunteers, but he said 10 are in the area during the day. However, he said Long Reach has been lucky compared to other neighbouring departments.

"It's tight sometimes and we would have to rely on neighbouring departments to back us up," he said.

If one or two firefighters in the department were diagnosed with COVID-19 or were self-isolating, Gautreau said it would be a manageable situation, but if 25 per cent or more of the Grand Bay-Westfield department was compromised, it would have to start relying on firefighters from other communities like Saint John.

"Somebody's going to respond."

New Brunswick has currently 55,000 firefighters, and of that number, 45,000 are volunteers. Lewis said he's confident that with more accessibility and campaigning, as well as the increasing diversity of roles within the fire department like administrative and driving positions, it will encourage more people to volunteer.

Morton said the first step is to reach out to your local volunteer fire department if you're interested.

"We're always looking for new people."

The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada. L'initiative de journalisme local est financée par le gouvernement du Canada.

Caitlin Dutt, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Telegraph-Journal