Beeps, buzzes and alarms bounce off the walls of the Humboldt Uniplex as two dozen firefighters practice putting on their suits and breathing masks. The gear lets them know if the masks are secure or if there’s a leak.
Outside, another dozen practice car extraction by securing the wheels of a small car and using hack saws to manually remove the roof.
They’re part of around 200 new and seasoned firefighters who took part in the 25th annual Saskatchewan Volunteer Firefighters Association (SVFFA) fire school over the weekend. The training camp also coincidentally helped kick off the province’s Fire Prevention Awareness week on Sunday.
All the students were there on their own time and represent a common occurrence in a vastly rural province: volunteer firefighters.
Saskatchewan has 400 fire departments that service many more municipal regions, and volunteer firefighters outnumber paid, full-time employees roughly seven to one. However, many of the communities continue to face the common issue of rural drain. As more people opt for city life, shrinking rural communities are faced with fewer volunteers and a smaller tax base.
“You can have a fire department, but if you’re in an area where you’re only going to respond to two calls in a year, it’s hard to retain interest in volunteers, it’s hard to justify training and equipment,” SVFFA president Doug Lapchuk said. “It’s sometimes hard to get personnel that are interested in putting their lives on the line for their community and willing to also take the time and effort that it takes to train and become competent.”
Kessa Scriver was one of the youngest trainees to attend the fire school. The 17-year-old can’t respond to calls for another few months, but she hasn’t let that stop her from training.
“I just want to be able to make change in the world,” Scriver said, adding she was inspired by her father who has been a long-time member of the Balgonie fire department.
However, she said volunteering requires dedication, even if you only respond to a couple calls a year.
“You might have to come in late at night or leave something in order to help out. If you know your department isn’t very full then your commitment is very important,” she said.
Fewer volunteers means firefighters might have a delayed response time or be left in the lurch at calls.
Fire commissioner for the provincial Ministry of Corrections, Public Safety and Policing Duane McKay has encouraged rural communities to develop strong rapid response teams and mutual aid agreements between each other in the event one community does not have the capability to deal with a call.
“This is clearly good planning that needs to occur and we’re certainly able to help them develop those relationships and meet with municipalities to help them develop a good emergency plan for their area,” he said.
Lapchuk would like to have the province develop a coordinated recruitment strategy and campaign similar to the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association’s Answer the Call campaign which launched in May.
Increased public awareness has made some progress in the past. When the Buckland Fire Department was looking for volunteers last year, getting in the public eye through media coverage helped bring in new people.
However, once they had the crew, training them became the next challenge.
It’s sometimes hard to get personnel that are interested in putting their lives on the line for their community and willing to also take the time and effort that it takes to train and become competent.
Training requires a lot of funding which is why SVFFA tries to keep the cost of its fire school as low as possible by bringing in volunteer teachers.
“It all comes down to the almighty dollar,” Lapchuk said.
However, departments that can’t afford to train their volunteers likely can’t afford a lot of new equipment, Lapchuk said. Both municipally-run and private fire departments draw their funding from the local tax base either directly, or through contracts with communities respectively.
The province provides technical support for larger incidents that smaller communities may not have the skill or equipment to handle such as train train derailments, hazardous materials, investigations and forest fires.
Buckland fire chief Jim Miller said their department has had trouble finding the money to get more than one unit out to certain calls. Volunteers aren’t paid for training or given a regular salary, but they do get paid when they are called out to a scene, adding to the cost of each call.
Miller said the role of a fire department is also changing, meaning crews need even more equipment and training to deal with a variety of issues such as car crashes, water rescues, and needle pickups.
“If it was 20 years ago, you’d probably basically be talking about fire, but in the past five years, fires actually took a back seat and all the other calls, accidents and some rescues, it over-shone the fire service,” he said.
A changing role of firefighters has also prompted the province to review and update the 20-year-old Fire Prevention Act. The new Fire Safety Act has passed the legislative assembly and is nearing the final stages of refinement. McKay said the goal is to create an act that is flexible enough to guide fire crews into the future.
Lapchuk encourages anyone who is even curious about volunteer firefighting to contact their local department, take a tour of their facilities, ask questions, and maybe take some training.