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Fire departments face volunteer shortage

Nov 06 2012
Unlike other local fire chiefs, Langford's Bob Beckett has a waiting list of volunteers. 

Unlike other local fire chiefs, Langford's Bob Beckett has a waiting list of volunteers.

Photograph by: Adrian Lam, Times Colonist , Times Colonist

Ever feel like getting out of bed on a stormy night to put out a house fire, grapple with heavy equipment to cut trapped victims out of car wrecks or assist ambulance paramedics as they save lives?

Volunteer fire departments on southern Vancouver Island are facing challenges keeping their rosters filled with people who are ready to work for free, willing to sacrifice their spare time - and sleep - and eager to learn a variety of life-saving skills.

Representatives from a number of volunteer fire departments said it is getting harder to find and retain volunteer firefighters. Most departments in smaller communities are short of volunteers.

Fire Chief Steve Sorensen has five career staff and 37 volunteers in his Sooke volunteer fire department.

Even with several dozen people signed on, it can be almost impossible to find any of them during certain times of the day, Sorensen said.

On one recent day, Sorensen had to scramble to get a partner to join him on a medical call. His paid staff were tied up, and no volunteers arrived at the hall to help, so Sorensen grabbed a municipal worker to go with him.

The lack of daytime resources has prompted Sorensen to train a couple of municipal employees in first aid so they can step in when there's a need.

"Resources are stretched," Sorensen said.

Volunteer firefighters are trained to a similar level as their full-time equivalents in the city, and the cost of that training is borne by the taxpayers.

"We get an average of 2.8 years out of them [before they leave]," Sorensen said.

"It's not very long. Basically, we get them to the level we're comfortable with them, and then they leave."

Volunteers leave for a variety of reasons. Some move to another community. Others get busy with growing families or take jobs as full-time firefighters in town - a move that stings, Sorensen said.

"The career departments are poaching from all the volunteer departments because we train them so well," he said.

In Sidney, the demographics don't stack up in favour of Chief Jim Tweedhope keeping his roster of volunteer firefighters at full strength.

Sidney has fewer than 12,000 people, and the majority are well past the prime age of a volunteer firefighter.

"The people between the ages of 19 and 44 are just 20 per cent of the population," Tweedhope said.

He's got 31 volunteers on hand, but he has interviews with hopefuls set up and it is likely they will boost the number closer to 40.

Applicants have to be physically fit and between 19 and 45, have a clean criminal record and demonstrate a keen interest in helping others.

"We can't put them in harm's way if they're not physically capable of doing the job," Tweedhope said.

No sooner are new volunteers getting trained than seasoned ones move on, he said.

"It's a constant challenge," Tweedhope said.

The Cowichan Bay volunteer fire department has 28 volunteers, seven short of the full complement of 35, said Chief Ken Bul-cock.

"It's getting harder to get people to commit their time, because a lot of people just don't have the time anymore," Bulcock said.

"People seem a lot busier with family activities these days."

At the other end of the spectrum is Langford, with a population of 30,000 served by a volunteer fire department boasting eight staff and 55 volunteers.

There's a waiting list of people wanting to come on as firefighters, and 40 to 50 eager hopefuls show up for orientations each January, Chief Bob Beckett said.

"We're very lucky that when we short-list and interview, we have far more applicants than we have positions to fill," he said.

smcculloch@timescolonist.com

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