Recent studies about firefighters in North America show that nearly 70 per cent of those willing to risk their lives to save others from fire are volunteers.
In Fernie, the 20-25 volunteer – or auxiliary – firefighters do get paid a stipend. There is also seven full-time staff, including the fire chief.
Recruitment and retention continues to be an issue across the province and across the country, and Fernie’s fire chief, Ted Ruiter, has a few ideas why those issues are present in Fernie.
There are a lot of young people in town with young families, many of whom live here to take advantage of all that Fernie has to offer – whether it’s biking, hiking, skiing and so on, and it’s also a sign of the cultural shift in today’s society.
“I think as generations have changed, the volunteer aspect of community is sort of getting less and less; it’s dissipating,” he said. “It’s a “me” generation, it’s more about what we can do for ourselves and not what we can do for each other. The point I’m trying to make is that there’s a societal and cultural shift in how young people manage their time and family life.”
That being said, Fernie is rather unique in that a lot of people volunteer for a lot of events and festivals, which takes up a lot of their time.
“Because there’s so much going on, we’re spread thin, and that’s a problem too,” he said.
Ruiter said he often receives interest from people who are here from other countries, but because they might only stay for a year or two due to the difficulty in acquiring work visas, there’s not much sense putting the time and money into training them if they can’t stay.
“We try to attract people that have been here at least a couple of years that you know are going to stay, and hope that they’re going to come in here and like what they do.”
Even when the fire department is able to recruit auxiliary firefighters, they sometimes have a problem keeping them, he said.
“It’s because we don’t do a lot of fires, and if you’re a young, energetic individual, you want excitement,” he said, adding he remembers when he first got started back in Ontario. “We’d just chomp at the bit to get to see a fire. That’s why we lose them, because they could go six months to a year without seeing a fire.”
But just because there aren’t a lot of fire calls, doesn’t mean the department isn’t busy, Ruiter said, adding one reason for the low volume of fire calls is because he and his staff are constantly out in the community and in the schools providing fire prevention education.
The fire department is manned 24/7 with a full-time staff, which allows the firefighters to be quick in their responses to calls, and they are able to provide assistance to the ambulance service, which only has one full-time ambulance on hand at all times.
“It allows the residents of Fernie to have a little bit better care when it comes to first response when it comes to medical problems,” he said.
“The beauty of having us here, is we can now backfill and respond in lieu of [the ambulance attendants] and wait for their arrival, so we can start patient care in the event they can’t get there first.”
Ruiter said his firefighters – both the career staff and the auxiliaries – have first response training, which allows them to do basic life support skills, including CPR, using a defibrillator, wound dressing and stabilizing broken limbs.
Ruiter said there are several reasons to want to be part of the firefighting team as auxiliary firefighters.
“It’s challenging and it’s exciting and it’s a sense of community and that’s a big thing,” he said.
“At the end of the day, we do work hard. People don’t see what we do but there’s a lot going on.”
For more information about becoming an auxiliary firefighter, contact the Fernie Fire Department.