On Saturday, representatives from six of the Cowichan Valley Regional District’s volunteer fire departments came to Mesachie Lake for the regional district’s annual recruitment and retention barbecue, which is held in a different part of the Cowichan Valley every year.
Firefighters of all ranks were present to share information and personal insights on what being a volunteer firefighter is all about. The six departments were Honeymoon Bay, Mesachie Lake, Youbou, Malahat, Sahtlam and North Oyster.
Jason Dejong, fire rescue services coordinator for the CVRD, was also present and said when these annual events were first started three years ago, chiefs from all departments recognized that working together on this effort was critical. At the time, he was chief of the North Oyster Volunteer Fire Department.
“We decided to combine our efforts for recruitment,” he said. “We decided to come up with a bunch of strategies and advertising an open house. And we decided we would… do it annually at this time of year.”
Dejong said any community members who are interested in joining a department but unable to attend the recruitment barbecue can contact either the CVRD or go directly to the fire department in their area.
“If they’re not quite sure where they’re at, we can help them and direct them,” he said.
Events like Saturday’s also aim to create awareness of what local fire departments do and how they function. Dejong said that many people — especially newcomers who are moving from larger cities like Vancouver—are not aware that all the fire departments in the Cowichan Valley are staffed by volunteers.
“Maybe give it a thought; it might be for you. And typically all the fire departments are looking for some kind of help,” he said. “Some are at capacity, some are not. It’s always worth checking out.”
Gary Eve, chief of the Mesachie Lake Volunteer Fire Department, said the most common question he gets from prospective members is what will be required of them, especially what the physical requirements will be.
“We need people who are at a certain physical level. The gear is heavy. Obviously you have to be able to pack that stuff around,” he said. That gear weighs roughly 50 pounds.
In addition to that physical ability, Eve said new firefighters need to have a willingness to learn. And there are plenty of learning opportunities for new recruits.
“We’ll offer them anything that they want to take whether it’s an air brake course or medical training or anything like that,” he said.
At Saturday’s event, Eve was giving first aid walk-throughs with curious members of the public and also some of the firefighters with different levels of first aid certification. With medical training mannequins, Eve showed people how to do CPR, use automated external defibrillators and use bag valve masks.
Each of the six departments face unique challenges depending on their geography — Malahat, for example, deals with a higher number of motor vehicle incidents; North Oyster has a natural gas facility in its area — but the commitments and the underlying philosophy of community service and volunteerism is the same.
Tony Marcotte, deputy fire chief from North Oyster, said in the past recruitment was easily done through word of mouth, but as populations are changing in the Valley’s rural communities, the ways departments find new members also has to change.
“Now we get a lot more transient people coming in,” he said.
“There’s less jobs in our area now to be able to support people actually working in the area and actually staying in the area,” he said. “The amount of jobs to keep people working and in the district [has fallen]. A lot of people have to go outside.”