City needs 70 volunteer firefighters

Shortfall may be related to low morale as well as the pandemic, some say

By Kirk Winter

Kawartha Lakes is facing a shortage of volunteer firefighters at almost every hall across the city. Kawartha Lakes Fire Service Chief Terry Jones told the Advocate in an email that although 23 per cent of the city’s volunteer firefighter positions are sitting empty, the problem of keeping a full roster isn’t a new one.

“As a hybrid fire service reliant upon volunteer firefighters, we struggle to maintain the number of firefighters required,” Jones wrote. “Being a predominantly rural population, at times we lack the number of firefighters required.”

The shortfall “has been amplified during the pandemic,” he added, “which required we pause on recruitment for the last two years. That said, we are extremely pleased with the response to the most recent recruitment. Due to the size of communities, there are fewer applications than ideal. However, I am confident we will train upwards of 60 new volunteer firefighters this year.”

Some current volunteer firefighters in Kawartha Lakes say there’s more to the story, though. They told the Advocate that the lack of firefighters may be more indicative of poor morale in at least some stations stemming from a feeling of not being valued, the rarity of full-time jobs opening up, reluctance among employers to let them respond to fire calls, and the challenges of balancing work and family with the demands of training and being on call.

The Advocate granted anonymity to two long-serving volunteer firefighters. Both said they feared being fired from what they see as a very important community service if they went on the record with their comments. The three volunteers who spoke with the Advocate represent a range of fire halls around the city.

The city’s 305 volunteer firefighters are in fact paid for their time, making between $20.65 and $24.96 an hour. Volunteers must report to 60 per cent of scheduled training sessions and 30 per cent of all fire calls. A volunteer’s total income over a calendar year depends on the number of calls they respond to and the station where they report.

Each new volunteer recruit must complete 40 hours of unpaid online training before starting 66 hours of in-class practical sessions spread over two months. Each recruit receives $500 at the end of the probationary period. Each station provides six hours a month of additional training in two sessions. There is also additional mandatory paid training throughout the year.

There are multiple reasons why Kawartha Lakes is struggling to find enough volunteer firefighters.

One of the biggest obstacles to recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters in Kawartha Lakes, say current volunteers, is the reality that few, if any, will ever be able to make firefighting their career. “Being a part-time firefighter here has never been a real path to full-time locally as we only have full-time minimum staffing in Lindsay,” Mark Lowell, a volunteer out of the Burnt River Fire Hall, wrote in an email to the Advocate. No other stations in the city have full-time positions.

“There are two kinds of volunteer firefighters,” said another interviewee we are calling Alex. “There is the group under 35 who hope to make firefighting a full-time gig, with volunteer (experience) acting as the stepping stone, and the guys like me over 35 who enjoy the camaraderie of the hall and believe helping your community is important. The young guys don’t last long before they are gone with real jobs in Durham, Metro Toronto or Peterborough. They could die of old age waiting to snag a full-time job at the Lindsay hall.”

Another volunteer we are calling Sam observed that, “If someone arrives with their paperwork already in place you know they won’t be around long. They are looking for a career and we can’t supply it, which is maddening. There needs to be a real pathway for our young volunteer firefighters to become full-time locally.”

That pathway is unlikely to open up any time soon. Chief Jones confirmed that the city hired just three full-time firefighters in the last five years, all of whom came from the volunteer ranks.

But even if the city can find enough new volunteers, “There is a big difference between recruitment and retention,” Alex said. “You can bring in all the newbies you want. If the job is not attractive, the training is too hard or there is not enough understanding of our situation outside the hall, the quality of service suffers. The new folks often don’t stay long enough to truly be useful to their mates at the fire hall.”

The volunteers who agreed to be interviewed for this story also described a fire service in which they say they are undervalued. “The full-time guys just don’t get it that this isn’t our first priority,” Sam added. “They ignore and belittle the station coordinators, who are often well respected and experienced volunteer firefighters themselves, creating a very unhelpful ‘them and us’ atmosphere that does not help morale or recruitment at the smaller volunteer halls at all.”

The volunteers say that city staff and full-time firefighters don’t understand the constraints that prevent volunteers from responding or turning out to calls. “The past chief sent out letters last year to volunteer firefighters with low turnout without asking station coordinators (the reasons). We lost three volunteers who were pissed off at the letter,” Lowell wrote, adding that one of those who quit did so to avoid the risk of bringing COVID back to his elderly mother. He says he’s heard there will be more letters sent out this year.

In his email, Jones said that when volunteers don’t respond to the percentage of calls spelled out in the collective agreement, the service issues a letter. “This is supported by the union and allows us to keep actively responding firefighters in the stations and fill vacant positions with new recruits. We can only have a maximum 20 volunteers per station. If we allow people to remain without fulfilling their response requirements of responding to 30 per cent of calls, it takes away a position from someone who may be better able to meet the needs of the fire service.”

The process doesn’t acknowledge the demands volunteers face, said Sam. “It is gutting when you get one of those damn letters and you know you are trying your best. Senior admin doesn’t get what we are trying to juggle. We work full-time somewhere else, we have family commitments, kids who need to be driven to jobs, and on top of that we are also volunteer firefighters in the middle of a pandemic.”

Provincially mandated requirements for volunteer firefighters are made clear during recruitment, the fire chief noted. “Volunteer fighters are our most valuable resource, and we greatly appreciate them all for stepping up through the pandemic to continue serving the needs of our residents.”

All three volunteer firefighters who spoke to the Advocate said that for anyone who isn’t self-employed or retired, making it to a call during the workday is difficult and can be career-harming. “We have eight members (at the Burnt River hall) who respond when they can,” Lowell said. “Some work too far away. Some employers won’t let them leave.”

Many volunteer firefighters hoped that the passage of Bill C-215 in 2016 would protect volunteer firefighters from intransigent bosses. The bill changed the federal labour code to prohibit “disciplinary action against volunteer firefighters who must leave work or fail to appear at work while acting in their capacity as volunteer firefighters.” The bill also states that “no employer without just cause can refuse to employ a person because they are a volunteer firefighter.”

“We had high hopes when that legislation was passed,” said Alex. “The reality of the workplace today is very different. If you are part of a work team where your labour is key to something getting done, bosses make it pretty clear that you aren’t going anywhere when you are on their dime. Even if you are self-employed, the client isn’t going to look too fondly on you packing up and leaving in the middle of the job for a call.”

Changes in how recruits are trained are also making it hard to keep them on as volunteers, Lowell says. “We had five people try to join our hall last year. Only one made it. The training is very hard on working people and their families. We used to bring them in slowly. We would train them at the halls and build a relationship (with the new firefighters) and help them make it. Now, it is at the training centre in Cameron. It is pass or get out.”

In his email, Jones noted that a new training plan is just getting underway. “We have one centre that is equipped for the mandatory training. After this initial training is completed, volunteers will return to their respective halls for ongoing weekly training. The fire service is committed to provide the best training available.” There are also plans to improve training by expanding the existing training centre and program for all firefighters.

The reality of training more than 400 firefighters across 19 stations over the considerable size of Kawartha Lakes is “daunting at times,” Jones said. “It is because we have citizens willing to become volunteer firefighters that we can sustain our hybrid model. With council support to build a long-term plan, I’m confident we are addressing the training shortcomings of the past.”

In the meantime, though, nearly one-quarter of all spots for volunteer firefighters sit empty. There’s no easy answer when it comes to attracting and retaining volunteer firefighters, Lowell said. “I am a former paramedic and also a business owner with deep family roots in this community. There was a time when our fire halls were a great part of our towns and members joined to help, not to get paid. I am not sure we can recover that feeling by doing the same things in the city of Kawartha Lakes that have not worked over and over again.”

Volunteer firefighting by the numbers

In 2021, KLFS responded to 2,465 calls, an average of almost seven calls a day. There are 18 stations across the city staffed largely by volunteer firefighters, and one station in Lindsay with full-time firefighters.

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