Fire chief at "wit's end" in urgent effort to recruit volunteer firefighters

By Janice Christie, Local Journalism Initiative reporter    
January 29 2020

SHEET HARBOUR – The stretch of Chief John Lowe's Halifax Fire District from Tangier to Moser River had 208 calls, including both medical responses and six house fires, during the 2019 fiscal year. It's a large geographic area to serve, with not enough volunteer firefighters to meet the need.

"In all but one of the stations along this part of the Eastern Shore we have an urgent shortage of volunteer firefighters," Lowe told The Journal during an interview last week.

Under Lowe's watch, the district known as E Platoon runs from Musquodoboit Harbour to Chezzetcook to east on the Number 7 Highway to the county line at Ecum Secum, with 14 stations and 16 staff. Sheet Harbour's Station #28 has a paid day staff of four Halifax Regional Firefighters Monday through Friday. But the volunteer contingent falls short of the need.

"Our volunteer stats stand at Moser River seven; Port Dufferin four; Sheet Harbour six; and Tangier 10. Ideally we should have a commitment of 10 willing and able at each station," explains Lowe. "We recruit word of mouth, signs out front of the station, advertisements and a recruitment drive. Demographics are changing with aging and declining population."

Lowe says they are at their "wit's end" regarding recruitment. "We are beginning to look at options of bringing people in from other areas outside of Canada."

Lower volunteer numbers translates into higher response times and lower turn out for calls, and that impacts the degree of loss.

"Houses burn faster now because of the materials they are built of," explains Lowe. "You are more likely to lose a home now because insurance won't take the chance to rebuild or renovate. It's more economical to level and rebuild."

In this district, volunteers are paid to be on call. Volunteer prerequisites are a Grade 12 education, driver's licence, clear drivers abstract, a criminal record check, legal residency in Canada, 20/30 vision and good hearing. Training takes place in the city at Knight's Ridge over a period of seven weekends. Two weekends cover Medical First Responder training and the other five are hands-on training. Some e-learning takes place on the computer.

"After graduation you qualify as a volunteer," says the chief.

Due to time commitment and responsibilities as a volunteer, an honorarium is provided. "A volunteer could potentially pull in more than a local average income," suggests Lowe. "All we need is a commitment, the training and for you to be available. On-going training takes place every Tuesday night at each local station.

"We do expect a lot. Volunteers do work hard when they are here. There is a drastic change of life because commitment means freedom goes away."

For the professional fire fighter positions, "we are encouraging people from the area to apply and go through the same process," says Chief Lowe. "We offer a diverse work environment and encourage females to apply as well."

Interested personnel, with at least a Grade 12 education, apply online and complete an aptitude test. A fitness test, interview and a physical are part of the application process. Once accepted, successful applicants undergo 14 weeks of paid training at Knight's Ridge in Halifax. The last class graduated on December 1, 2019.