Beyond the blaze, firefighters face ever-present battle for resources
County hiring fire services coordinator to help reduce department costs
Firefighting has changed dramatically over the past fifty years. Just ask District 4 Municipal Councillor and former Fire Chief of the North Shore and District Volunteer Fire Department Merrill Macinnis.
“It’s a challenge getting young people involved now. Volunteers don’t seem to want to come forward like they did,” said Macinnis via phone May 7. “It was a no-brainer for young people to join departments 40 or 50 years ago when I was a teenager. It’s just not happening today.”
Recruitment efforts are a major problem plaguing fire departments across the province. As the size of departments shrink, demands on firefighters’ time seems to only increase. Macinnis believes a lot of the added responsibilities is the result of an ongoing provincial downloading of services to municipalities and local organizations.
“In our case, down where we are in Indian Brook, medical first responders weren’t even thought of 20 years ago. There was no department of this county that had jaws of life. We have to have one, but now our $6,000 unit is becoming obsolete. That's the kind of stuff we have to deal with to keep up with the times.”
Macinnis also said traffic control at emergency scenes is something that used to be handled by the Department of Transportation. Now, fire crews are expected to manage the traffic themselves.
On the positive side, the fire service has seen tremendous advancements in technology for rescuing people and property while increasing the overall safety of those individuals putting their lives on the line. But the shiny new equipment comes at a cost.
Last year, the Baddeck Volunteer Fire Department purchased new turnout gear for the entire department after learning most would not meet safety inspection. The department struggled to find the $50,000 needed to foot the bill. Dan Chiasson is the Communication Director for the department and believes a major shift needs to happen in how departments are funded.
“We haven't had an increase for a very long time. We're working with what we consider to be under budget. Our equipment is very old. Our big tanker truck, the most important vehicle we have for firefighting in a rural
area, is 35 years old. The estimates to replace that would be $700,000. How are we going to do that? The chiefs are running fire departments. They have full-time jobs. They have families. They're just trying to keep everything working. We need an advocate.”
The Fire Chiefs Association of Victoria County agrees. Last September, the organization helped bring Guysborough County Fire Services Coordinator Shawn Andrews to Victoria County council to share his experience re-organizing the fire service in his county.
From that presentation, the Fire Chiefs asked Victoria County to create a fire services coordinator position. Council struck a committee of four councillors without direct ties to the fire service (Morrison, Macleod, Budge and Macdonald) and began working with the Fire Chiefs to make the position happen. Two weeks ago, the job was posted. It closes May 18.
Victoria County CAO Leanne Maceachen is hopeful that the new position will be an opportunity to take an inventory of all fire service resources in the county and help reduce the costs that each department experiences.
“The Fire Chiefs get together, but each department operates as a silo now. What we've noticed as we pay for training sessions is that there might be a training session for the burn unit that's happening in Cape North, but Baddeck may not know about it. If we have a fire services coordinator who's in charge of letting the other departments know, then we can take better advantage of the opportunity,” said Maceachen during a courthouse interview on May 3.
Beyond cost savings, Maceachen hopes the coordinator role can help increase firefighter safety across the board.
“This is not only about the funding piece, we have to think of the safety of these people [firefighters]. These are people who have other jobs and are going out to save someone's house, or responding to a motor vehicle accident. We want them to be trained, and have everything they need to be able to do this.”
Exactly how to fund everything the fire service needs remains an open question.
Victoria County does not have a defined ‘fire rate’ listed separately from general property taxes on annual tax assessments. Instead, an amount is budgeted from the general pool. Maceachen admits that it has been a long time since the fire service has seen a direct funding line increase, but she said the draft budget currently in committee reflects a potential raise.
“We're hoping the increase that we're giving to the fire departments, plus the fire services coordinator, is going to help them overall. Fundraising used to be a bigger part of how the fire departments worked, I'm not really sure if that's their focus as much anymore. Nobody has the time really to do anything.”
Warden Bruce Morrison also said that while there has not been an increase to the fire services budget line in some time, the Municipality has given to individual departments in many ways over the years, including training, wilderness rescue equipment and cost of life insurance for firefighters.
The Guysborough experience is now twelve years old. Andrews told Councillors in September that the county funds nearly the entire fire service, provides a regular disbursement of turnout gear and has a capital purchase schedule so that trucks and other equipment are replaced at appropriate intervals.
Maceachen pointed out that while Victoria County has much to learn from the Guysborough story, there are many things that set the two counties apart – including much larger financial resources in Guysborough – at least historically.
“We're at the very beginning stages of this, trying to figure out what it is that we need, and then see if we can help out the fire departments with this as the first part, so we're not committing to any capital assets, or anything like that at this point. We're at the beginning stages of seeing where this position takes us.”
Whereas Maceachen emphasized the infancy of the process, Morrison appeared more determined that the Municipality cannot be a source of adequate funding.
“I think every municipality would like to be able to fund fire departments to the level that fire departments would be happy. It's just that it can't be done financially. I think all municipalities are very supportive of fire departments because of what they contribute to their community. We have a great respect for fire departments, for the service they provide on a volunteer basis, and the situations that they come into. But, having said that, it's just not feasible to be able to buy them everything that they need.”
Improvements in Guysborough County’s funding formulas have helped solve more than issues of capital costs. In a county equally concerned about an aging population, Guysborough has witnessed a resurgence of volunteers. Andrews believes much of it is tied to a renewed sense of pride in the service, and a knowledge that firefighters focus less on fundraising and more on fire and rescue calls.
Back in Indian Brook, Macinnis is left pondering the situation he faces with volunteers.
“It's a challenge to motivate people. It's a different world today. If they knew that they were going to be there with good equipment, as opposed to inadequate equipment, it might entice them to get involved.”
A little drizzle, fog and cool temperatures couldn't put a damper on the fun at the 7th Annual Middle River Run/walk held Saturday, May 5. An energetic and enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Middle River Community Centre for the 10am start. The 10k Run...