Answering the call: Who pays the cost of dwindling volunteer numbers?

Watch above: In part 3 of our series ‘Answering the Call’, Quinn Ohler delves into what could happen if nobody fills the empty spaces in our rural fire departments.

EDMONTON — A new, state-of-the-art fire hall has opened its doors in the Acheson industrial area. But there’s one key part missing.

“Ideally we would like to have about 40 volunteers that would become members of this fire hall, and to date we are in the neighbourhood of 12,” said Mayor of Parkland County Rod Shaigec.

If those spots aren’t filled soon, Parkland County will have to start looking at a full-time contingent. Shaigec said that could cost upwards of $6.5 million.

“That burden is then assumed by the business community here as well as residents in the benefiting area.”

READ MORE: Answering the call: Meet Parkland County’s volunteer firefighters

It’s a story all too familiar for volunteer fire departments across the province, which are struggling to get residents to sign up.

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Eighty per cent of firefighters across Alberta are volunteers. Most are paid when they respond to calls and when they are training, but they voluntarily carry a pager.

“We respond to emergencies in Parkland County around 1,000 times a year,” Parkland County Fire Chief Jim Phalen said. “It’s hard to get people who want to dedicate that much time and effort to something that they don’t do on a full-time basis.”

The job description is changing. Instead of just putting out fires, volunteer firefighters are now emergency responders who are called out to everything from medical emergencies, to chemical spills and traffic collisions. They spend hours training for every scenario.

“Our firefighters are equally well-trained as those you would find in a larger city,” added Phalen.

READ MORE: Answering the call: Volunteer firefighters on why they help their communities

So what happens if more people don’t sign up? The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association says it could mean longer response times. Camrose Fire Chief Peter Krich is the chairman of its board dedicated to the recruitment and retention of volunteer firefighters across the province.

“If we don’t get people to keep that service operating, that service is going to disappear,” said Krich. “The residents in that community (are) going to be relying on the other communities down the road.”

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It’s a price Krich doesn’t want any community to have to pay.

“We want to encourage people within the community to support their service, and in the long term bring the population of the volunteer fire service up to where it’s healthy again.”

The association has launched a province-wide advertising campaign, hoping to spark interest in the program. It will also be adopted by fire services across the country in coming months.

For more information on becoming a volunteer firefighter, visit the Alberta Volunteer Firefigthers website.

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