Rural fire brigades face volunteer shortages

St. Mary's chiefs concerned

By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
September 2 2020

ST. MARY’S – As their members age, and younger recruits are increasingly hard to come by, volunteer fire departments in St. Mary’s are fighting an uphill battle against time, say two of the district’s long-serving chiefs.

“We are a have-not municipality with a dwindling population, and the population is just getting older,” said Bruce Sinclair, chief of Goshen Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s harder to get young [people] into the departments.”

Added Sherbrooke and Area Volunteer Fire Department Chief Wayne Auton: “It’s just the average age. We have some young people, but we’re one of the luckier ones. There’s a whole bunch of us who are in our sixties and seventies.”

In fact, the problem – which is not unique to St. Mary’s in Nova Scotia – is challenging, though not yet critical. “We’ve got 70- and 60-year olds,” said Sinclair, a sheep and dairy farmer who oversees a fire brigade of about 14. “You don’t turn away the older guys, because even if they can’t fight a fire, they can drive a truck to the scene of one. There’s a use for everyone. Everybody’s got a place.”

Auton, who supervises as many as 26 volunteers, agrees. “We have people who don’t actually fight fires, but they get equipment for you, and do everything else for you. That’s also part of being a firefighter. We have eight people who can put on the breathing apparatus and make entry [into a fire scene].”

While reliable data on the number of calls St. Mary’s eight volunteer departments make in any given month is hard to come by, both Sinclair and Auton say the volume of incidents has not increased appreciably since the COVID crisis. 

They add, however, that the nature of the work in rural locations can be more diverse than in more uniformly built-up population centres. That adds another wrinkle in communities where the emergency response force is already a precious commodity. 

“It’s summertime now, and most of my fireman are away,” Sinclair said. “I’ve gone out there just by myself, and it’s not a good feeling. I think the last one was a campground fire at three in the morning. The weirdest one was getting a kitten out of a car grill.”

Funding is also an issue. Currently, St. Mary’s issues about $50,000 a year in training contributions to its volunteer brigades. In the 2019-20 fiscal year, that accounted for about 50 per cent of the municipality’s entire grant budget. “Anything fire-related involves a lot of money,” Auton said.

In March, Senior Communications Advisor to Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency Brynn Budden, told The Journal’s Janice Christie: “There are several reasons for the decline [of volunteer firefighters] including a changing demographic, a declining trend of volunteerism across North America, as well as population shifts from rural and suburban communities to the urban core. While in some other areas of the municipality there is strong volunteer participation, there is a particular shortage on the Eastern Shore and Black Point areas.”

Indeed, Auton said, it’s not easy to put a price on availability and interest. “I’ve wanted to [be a firefighter] forever. I wrote the exam for the Halifax Fire Department close to 50 years ago. Back then, they trained you while you worked. I’m 73 now, and this is still in my blood.”