Chief says Hamilton ‘fortunate’ amid Canada-wide survey reporting diminishing firefighter numbers

Hamilton's fire chief says the city is fortunate to have much of what it needs to avoid 'precarious conditions' being reported in smaller communites across Canada. Global News

Hamilton’s fire chief says data from a new study suggesting Canada is having challenges with diminishing numbers in firefighters is not as much a problem in the city, particularily with full-timers.

Census data from a 2022 Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) survey is painting a bleak picture when it comes to staffing at fire halls across Canada, revealing a drop in career and volunteer firefighters, especially in small, rural communities.

The report points to a drop of about 30,000 firefighter positions over five years, increased emergency call volumes, aging equipment, reliance on volunteers and a high injury rate as factors creating “precarious conditions” in many communities.

However, Chief Dave Cunliffe says there is a bit of a different picture in Hamilton which has few issues in full-time recruitment with “lots of folks that are interested.”

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“In terms of volunteer firefighters, we are seeing some challenge and that’s not anything different than across the country,” Cunliffe told 900 CHML’s Good Morning Hamilton.

The chief says a number of the city’s stations are manned by volunteers, especially in rural areas, and the issues surround juggling family life and another job with being on call.

“The job tasks are the same as a full-time firefighter, yet they’re doing it while going about their daily lives,” Cunliffe explained.

“When they get notified there’s a fire and they need to respond, … then they have to pretty much drop what they’re doing and leave. So it is challenging.”

Close to 600 profession-related injuries were recorded across Canada in a 12 month period by 629 stations monitored in the CAFC report.

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It included two “in the line of duty” deaths and 56 tied to illnesses associated with the profession.

As well, 40 per cent of Canada’s fire departments have had to defer training and new equipment for more than two years due to fiscal issues.

Cunliffe says Hamilton is “fortunate” in that respect, with city leaders doing “an amazing job” supplying the fire department with what they need.

“We’re up to date in terms of our equipment and apparatus,” said Cunliffe.

“There has been nothing in terms of reduction for training.”

The CAFC is calling on the federal government for help in three areas: protecting and retaining firefighters, response capacity, and reducing community risk.

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Specific actions include buying 600 new fire trucks, refurbishing 800 fire stations and modernizing 600 communication systems.

They’re also looking for increased tax credits for firefighters, supports for physical and metal health issues and mandatory sprinklers for affordable housing.

“The federal government has important levers to help address the future of fire and emergency services. We have developed recommendations sensitive to the fiscal climate and look forward to sharing them,” Ken McMullen, CAFC president said in a statement.

Cunliffe says Hamilton Fire recruits aggressively during all 12 months of a given year and is currently looking to take on 40 more volunteer firefighters for 11 stations.

“We actually are looking to bring on a new class of recruits early in 2023,” Cunliffe said.

“We’ve just graduated a group of 15 volunteer firefighters three weeks ago.”

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