With a labour shortage affecting numerous industries across the province, local volunteer fire departments are also feeling the pinch.
Challenges to recruitment
According to MRC Pontiac’s Fire and Public Safety Coordinator Julien Gagnon, there are a multitude of issues that hamper recruitment, from an aging population to employment in the area, to the length of training. He said that being unable to hold the usual fundraisers and community events due to COVID-19 certainly didn’t help either.
Gagnon added that the departments most affected by the shortage of workers were ones that were smaller, more rural, and had low employment numbers. Those available during the day on weekdays were generally the most sought after, since many volunteers work outside the region and are unavailable to respond to calls during this time period.
Waltham Fire Chief Larry Perry agreed, saying that his most reliable firefighters during work hours on weekdays are the retirees or seasonal workers, since there aren’t many job opportunities available within the municipality. Even so, he still has the option of calling in support from neighboring departments.
Gagnon added that local chiefs have been looking at other ideas to pool resources and manpower during these critical times.
Changes to training
Shawville Clarendon Fire Chief Lee Laframboise said that a recent recruitment ad put out by the municipality on social media has given him a few leads, but he’s always on the lookout for more hands. He pointed out that though the training course is lengthy (roughly 200 hours), they pay their recruits to take it. However, a recent change has meant that the online training that used to be offered to local departments is not longer available.
“It used to be that you could do it online, a lot of it,” he said. “Now there’s no more online, the government didn’t renew the program ... where you could do so much online, then so many [hands-on] practices.”
Perry said that they had been using the online course for the past 10 to 15 years, and they were currently finalizing an alternative solution for training. Between that change and COVID-19 initially hampering in-person training, it was difficult to keep recruitment rolling.
Gagnon explained that most recruits start off in a probation period of around 6 months, where they go out on calls and help out where they can, but aren’t allowed to enter what’s called the “red zone”. As they complete the modules in their course, they can start taking on different tasks. He acknowledged that the initial training is a large undertaking for anyone, let alone someone who might have work or family commitments, and it usually lasts around a year, year and a half.
Gagnon mentioned that there is currently a pilot project being tested elsewhere in Quebec where preliminary firefighter training is offered in high schools to students. He said that they were currently waiting on the results from this project to see if it would be viable in this region.
Benefits of becoming a firefighter
Perry pointed out that while it’s not about the money, they prefer to call their members “part-time” firefighters as opposed to “volunteer”. He said that he does his best to highlight the positive elements of firefighting without sugar-coating the challenges.
“A lot depends on the optics,” he said. “If you’re saying to someone who is interested, you have to put forth a positive image of what it means to be a volunteer firefighter, but we rarely use the term volunteer anymore, it’s actually part-time. I think maintaining a positive image in the community ... of what it means to give your service, and make the sacrifices to get the training and skills and so on ... to give a positive image to that individual. I think that would help a lot, but you can never present a false image, it’s also going to be the case of a lengthy initial training program before they can get involved in actual firefighting, and the pay is, well, minimal.”
Both Laframboise and Gagnon said that the most rewarding aspects of being a firefighter were the friendships and camaraderie within the department.
Laframboise pointed out that with a possible wave of people leaving urban environments because of the pandemic, it’s a great way to quickly get to know the community.
“If you’d just moved here to get out of the city, and just joined the fire department, it’s a pretty tight group you know,” he said. “All of a sudden you have a group of friends, you have a social live and you’re involved in the community.”
He added that with advances in training and equipment, they occasionally have the ability to save people’s lives or their property from severe damage.
“When we’re able to do that, for the firemen it’s very rewarding,” he said.
Those looking to inquire about joining their local department should contact their municipality or call the fire hall directly.