Rural Alberta fire departments struggle to recruit volunteers

Many rural fire departments say the search for volunteer firefighters is a constant challenge.

And since volunteers make up the majority of firefighters in Alberta, they play an important role.

Foothills County fire chief Rick Saulnier says he currently has about 60 volunteers operating out of five stations.

And although he says they’re not currently dealing with a volunteer shortage, they are looking for 10 to 15 more.

“We’re always looking for volunteers. Recruitment never stops,” Saulnier said. “They’re very, very important to have.”

And Saulnier is not alone in hoping for more new recruits.

According to Drayton Bussiere, the Lacombe County fire chief who chairs the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association recruitment and retention committee, volunteer demand varies by region — but he can’t remember a time when most rural departments were not recruiting.

Bussiere says this is largely because in rural areas, the pool to draw from is smaller.

“Somebody’s always looking,” Bussiere said.

‘Just as important as a full-time firefighter’

Seventy per cent of the Foothills County Fire Department roster are volunteers, and Saulnier says they do everything and anything that any other firefighter would.

“Their role is just as important as a full-time firefighter,” he said.

But Saulnier says there are recruitment challenges such as finding people with the required skills.

For example, volunteers in Foothills County must be at least 18 years of age, live within a 12-minute drive of the fire station, and have a Class 5 driver’s licence.

Once criteria such as these are met, fire hall time commitments present another obstacle.

Many people fit the hours in after their full-time jobs, Saulnier says, so recruiting those who can work day shifts is difficult.

“We’re always looking for those daytime response volunteers that … have a lot more flexibility that way,” he said.

Retention is also an issue, as some who start the volunteer process discover it just isn’t for them, Saulnier said.

“Some of them find out … it’s not what they thought it was,” Saulnier said. “[So] I would suggest that they do a lot of research before.”

‘It gives you lots in return’

According to Bussiere, most fire departments continue to meet service needs in their communities, even when they’re recruiting.

But he says shortages of rural volunteers have led some fire halls to close because a safe number of volunteers couldn’t be maintained. 

In 2018, that happened in Lacombe County.

“Generally, closing is a last resort,” Bussiere said.

“[But we] ended up having to close down a station and change the response model in that area. So, it does definitely happen.”

If people are interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter, he recommends reaching out to the local fire hall and asking for more information.

“Find a member of a local fire department, and just talk to that person about what the requirements are,” Bussiere said.

“As much as the fire department demands lots from people, it gives you lots in return, as well.”

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