The loss of volunteers to fill the staffing needs at the Mill Bay fire department has led to calls for full-time and paid firefighters.
David Slade, chairman of the board at the fire department, said the ongoing problem of struggling to maintain a full complement of firefighters has forced the department to a significant crossroad.
He said that despite spending close to $10,000 and many hours on a focused multi-pronged and multi-media recruitment drive in 2017, the department was unable to increase its numbers.
“Our current reality is that during the week, from Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., we rarely have more than four members available to respond to an emergency, and on some days we are down to only two,” Slade said.
“Two firefighters are not enough to operate a fire truck at any kind of significant event or fire, so we are frequently faced with having to call our neighbouring fire departments asking for additional personnel to bolster our crews. Our neighbouring departments are also volunteers, which means that they sometimes struggle to meet their own emergencies, making it difficult to send their resources out of area to assist others.”
Slade said that last year, the Mill Bay fire department, which is in an independent fire protection district funded by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, responded to more than 390 calls in 2017, attended dozens of community events and trained to the same level as required for career firefighters in paid departments.
He said that its members are overworked and at risk of burnout, while the Mill Bay area is being under served due to the shortage of individuals willing to accept the challenge of being a volunteer firefighter.
“The crossroads that we face is to carry on with business as usual, knowing that the day will come when we will have a major fire or other emergency where our lack of human resources results in serious loss of property, or much worse, loss of life; or move to a ‘composite’ department, where we would have four or five full-time, daytime paid firefighters working Monday to Friday who would be supported by a team of volunteers who would be available to respond on weekends and evenings,” Slade said.
“As a department, we believe we need to take this step but we know it will come with significant challenges and significant expenses.”
Slade said that in consultation with the province, the department has determined that adding $250,000 to its annual budget would cover the cost of wages and benefits for a four-person team of fully trained, qualified firefighters and first responders, and would add $75 per year to the property tax on a $500,000 residential property.
He said the issue will be discussed at the department’s AGM on April 26 at Mill Bay Hall #1 at 2675 Lodge Pole Rd. at 7 p.m. and the public is welcome to attend to ask questions and participate in discussions.
“The ministry has instructed us that it’s up to the board to make a final decision, but we must put the question to the local taxpayers before we can get authorization to proceed,” Slade said.
“The best-case scenario is that the room at the AGM will fill up with volunteers and take care of this problem without the added expense to taxpayers,” he said.
A statement from the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing acknowledged that in some rural areas with small populations, it may be difficult to staff volunteer fire departments.
“Improvement districts have broad authority to deliver services within their scope providing they also meet provincial fire safety standards,” the statement said.
“This includes scheduling and remuneration of staff. Improvement districts are self-financing entities and may need to increase taxes to achieve their staffing goals.”