Genelle’s volunteer firehall is struggling to recruit new people and new training expectations has its district chief worried potential volunteers will be further put off.
Mark Krastel, district fire chief for Kootenay Boundary Regional Fire Rescue’s Co. 3, said notices have been posted to the Genelle community board and even via mailouts but the response is at an all time low.
There are 10 paid on-call firefighters, which does not meet the 15-member expectation to run an operational firehall. He’d like to see numbers reach 20 to allow some cushion when it comes to scheduling.
“Not only do you need members but you need members who are willingly participating and hopefully able to come to calls when you need them,” he said. “But that’s a crapshoot because on the weekday here, there is only two who don’t work Monday to Friday.”
Terry Martin, regional fire chief, said recruitment at times has been a challenge for all of the region’s volunteer fire halls, which include Rossland, Warfield, Genelle, Trail, Montrose and Fruitvale. But he assures that the regional approach allows halls like Genelle to pick members up when coverage is needed.
“The firehall will remain, I don’t want anyone to think that it would go away, because it’s supported by the career staff in Trail and Company No. 2, Warfield,” he said. “We’ll never not send a proper response to any kind of incident.”
Martin suggests suggests the fire department might actually see higher retention levels and more newcomers with this new level of professionalism brought to its volunteer halls.
“A lot of folks are not willing to make that commitment right now but if we make it more intriguing we might generate more interest,” he said.
Ultimately the change will ensure safety. WorkSafe BC regulations and new legislative requirements in the “playbook” emphasize the need for fully trained firefighters and the liability attached for not having members trained properly. This is what the East End Services Committee reviewed before setting the level of service expected of regional fire rescue.
“You have to be so careful with what jobs you task your members with when you’re at an incident and if they’re not trained for that task and they get hurt, it’s not fair for the member and it’s not fair to the organization,” said Martin.
Regional fire rescue’s new training requirements place a strong focus on getting not only its career firefighters but paid on callers up to a level to be officially recognized as a full-service operations fire department.
A fire service review completed by Dave Mitchell and Associates recommended instituting a training officer to bring members up to an NFPA 1001 Level 2. This qualification builds on the basic training and equips the student to function as an integral member of a team within the required supervision level required on the fire ground. As well as further knowledge and skills of structural firefighting, the course expectation also provides awareness for basic vehicle extrication and rescue techniques.
Details on what this really will look like locally are dependent on the new training officer, who clocks in Sept. 14.
Genelle members were busy with pre-fire planning during last regular practice. The exercise had members surveying properties, searching for the nearest hydrant, noting what various buildings were made out of and whether there were any access challenges or hazards nearby. The crew meets Tuesdays to do such exercises, mostly taking advantage of the daylight with outdoor activities in the summer and heading indoors during the winter.
There is a core group of dedicated volunteers but this may not be enough, said Krastel. Numbers have been dwindling for the past five years and scheduling has become complicated, especially during the summer months.
“You might be in a motor vehicle accident here in Genelle on the highway and Trail will come with the extraction and you’re working beside those guys with the same professionalism and they’re making their wage and we get $17 an hour,” he said. “We don’t do it for the money but the expectation is high.”
The number of calls Krastel, a 17-year veteran, and his team have responded to over the years is at the forefront of his mind as he questions whether there is still an appetite in his community to continue.
Back in the day, he said, there were full complements of people and a waiting list of others ready and willing to get started.
Krastel can stretch his memory back to a time when volunteer halls were more about socializing.
“People used to stay after practice and drink until 2 or 3 in the morning and the pager would go off and it was like who’s had the least beer here and hopefully the guy that didn’t sit around and drink will come back and drive,” he said. “Now it’s not like that at all. You cannot go to a call if you’ve even had one drink of beer.”
Come Friday, a long working week can sometimes be rewarded with a game of golf and a few cold ones. But if the pager goes, again, the small group of volunteer base may be cut further.
The feel of a volunteer hall has shifted and today is brought up to the same standards as career halls, which in Martin’s mind is a real success. But somewhere along the way, the response has also shifted.
Martin remembers all too well when he first got started in 1981 and there was a two-year waiting list in Rossland. Times have changed, he said, and volunteering isn’t what it used to be.
But that’s the beauty of the regional service, he said. The hall closest to the incident, whether it’s a first response call or fire, is called to the scene and then backup is determined on numbers.
“It’s a tough job and we’re not the only fire service in Canada or North America which is suffering with numbers now,” said Martin. “There’s lots of paid on-call departments that don’t have enough members in order to safely send a crew out every single time there is a page.”