In many Canadian communities, fire departments are struggling to recruit and retain qualified staff, largely because the “staff” are actually volunteers. According to the Office of the Fire Commissioner, there are 14 000 firefighters in Alberta alone, with volunteers accounting for 80% of that workforce, in 450 volunteer-operated fire departments across the province.
When responding to an incident, there are strict protocols in place to ensure the safety of fellow workers. If a building needs to be entered, for example, it has to be done in teams, with a back-up team suited and ready to go in at any moment. If numbers are stretched, this may mean the department is not able to fight the fire in the most efficient way possible.
It can be frustrating to watch a fire unfold, particularly when you feel there is little you can do to control it. Landowners and civilians watching at the sidelines are often hasty to get involved, but it’s incredibly important to respect and trust that the fire department is trained to have everyone’s safety in mind. They also work hard to save what they can as quickly as they can.
Volunteer firefighters come from all walks of life. There are teachers, farmers, oil field workers, artists, emergency medical responders and so many others who decide to give their time to emergency situations in their communities.
These volunteers are expected to respond to a diverse array of incidents. In one district in Alberta in 2012-2013, volunteers responded to grass fires (53%), motor vehicle accidents (41%), structure fires (14%), vehicle fires (11%), alarms, medical assists and power pole fires, to name a few.
Volunteer firefighters are crucial to our emergency services, particularly in rural areas, where they are often the first to arrive on a scene. Their commitment requires sacrificing personal time or paid work, and occasionally means putting their own lives on the line for their community. It means responding to accidents involving friends and family, controlling emotions in stressful situations and driving back to the fire hall knowing it could happen all over again tomorrow.
This year, consider saying thanks by supporting your local volunteer fire department’s pancake breakfast, or by helping your family understand the theme of Fire Prevention Week, which runs October 5-11.