Chief says firefighter shortage puts small communities at risk
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“I don’t know how many firefighters I have until I get a call... and it could be something critical. That is stressful from a command perspective."
Canada is experiencing an ongoing shortage of firefighters, and small remote communities are especially short of volunteers. "It´s bad", says the fire chief of St. Louis, in a plea for help to recruit more firefighters.
The provincial news site SaskNow.com, based out of the province of Saskatchewan, writes in a recent article of the severe lack of volunteer firefighters the region of St. Louise is experiencing. The situation is far for unique for St: Louise; pretty much every small comunity is experiencing some challenge in recruiting and keeping firefighters.
St. Louis is a village with a (2016) population of only 415 people. It is located in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan within the Rural Municipality of St. Louis No. 431. It is south of the City of Prince Albert and northeast of Batoche. (Stats from Wikipedia.com)
Although small, the village fire department is typical of rural Canada: The village population is only in the hundreds, but the community, and their fire station, serves a geographically much larger area of farmers, making the tiny town a sort of regional center.
“It’s an ongoing problem for every rural fire department,” he explains to SaskNow.com.
“I don’t know how many firefighters I have until I get a call. We don’t even know the availability until an incident happens and it could be something critical. That is stressful from a command perspective, because we need to give the proper care to the people in need when they need it, not when we’re available.”
Typical situation for rural Canada
Most of Canada´s larger cities have employed career firefighters,. However, the number of career firefighters are few outside of major centers like Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and the greater Vancouver / Victoria area.
Fire stations in mid sized communities are often staffed by part timers, who get paid for the calls they go to - but it is getting increasingly hard to find employers who will accept this hybrid form of work.
In smaller communities, often very large areas rely on a very small number of dedicated volunteers.
As Canada is home to some of the least population dense areas in the industrialized world, local fire brigades have to be prepared for everything and anything: fires, train derailments, hazmat incidents, traffic accidents... and unlike volunteer brigades in Europe and the US, there is often no nearby station to call when an incident gets big. And the distance to the nearest neighbouring village can be staggeringly large.
Add a shortage of staff to that mix, and you may be starting to see a real "recipe for disaster".
The shortage is so bad it is "putting the community at risk"
According to fire chief James Brake of St. Louise, the lack of volunteers is getting so bad that it is putting the community at risk should any larger incident occur while staffing is low.
Only three or four firefighters available at any given call - neighbouring communities exhausted
Chief Brake only has 12 members active on his team in St. Louis. And, they all have full-time jobs already on top of volunteering at the fire hall - this leaves sometimes only three or four members being available to respond to calls.
The chief says he’s been reaching out to other communities to lend a hand when needed.
“We really have to be conscious of how many responders we have for whatever incident it may be,” he said. “I had a fire Friday (April 28) that lasted until two o’clock in the morning and that’s tough, these people were working six hours previously before they got to an eleven-hour fire.”
In a desperate plea for help, the Chief Brake is now actively recruiting to replenish the team.
In St. Louis, volunteers don’t normally get paid salary - however those who decide to join the team do get paid training and also get compensation while on the call.