Ottawa has one of the most unusual fire departments in North America — fully a third of the 1,500 firefighters are “volunteers.”
If you look at a map, these 500 or so “non-career” personnel are responsible for covering about 80 per cent of the municipality’s landmass — and not one on salary.
On a day-to-day basis, it means when a barn is on fire near Sarsfield or North Gower, or a car flips over in Kinburn, pagers will go off on the belts or nightstands of electricians, plumbers, farmers or shop owners, leading them to hustle to the nearest station or leap directly into “bunker” gear stored in their vehicles.
Unlike in the city, it is a system in which neighbours, literally, rescue each other.
This is a result of amalgamation, when a number of mostly rural jurisdictions — from Cumberland to West Carleton, all with mostly volunteer hose-holders — joined established urban departments (Ottawa, Gloucester, Nepean, Kanata) to form one giant service in 2001.
It is a hybrid or “composite” system with its own issues — one of them being recruitment.
Ottawa Fire Services is this week embarking on one of its most ambitious recruitment drives to fill gaps created by the usual retirements and departures, but also an unusual amount of relocation driven by the pandemic.
About 21,000 rural households will get a recruitment postcard in the mail and messaging will be popping up on firetrucks, signboards and station-bay doors across the countryside.
“Ottawa has not had a volunteer recruitment campaign since I’ve been a volunteer, not at this level,” said east-end Sector Chief Larry Roy, 51, who began as a volunteer in 2002.
“We’re looking for the mothers and fathers, the farmers, the contractors,” he said. “The people invested in their community.”
People like Anthony Vanmunsteren, 37, a dairy farmer near Sarsfield who, with wife Lorraine, has four children, yet has managed to be a volunteer for 18 years. He’s now a captain at the Navan station, which responded to about 140 calls in 2021, about 90 of which he attended himself.
It was also an unusual year for turnover: of the 20 “non-officers” at the station, eight new recruits started in the middle of last year, he said.
“It was a huge undertaking. I had never seen that in 18 years of service.”
Contrary to misconception, volunteer firefighters are not a pale version of the real thing, nor are they unpaid.
Without a couple of special exceptions, they take as much training as a career firefighter but do it over a roughly eight-month period, usually two or three times a week, and must be just as physically fit. They are paid rates from about $19 an hour (probation) to $30 for a captain.
There are 20 volunteer stations within Ottawa’s system and the ideal complement is about 25 firefighters each. About 50 new personnel were brought in last year and this year’s goal is roughly the same. Currently, the communities of Kinburn and Corkery need help in the west end.
“What separates an urban service from a rural service is nine out of 10 times we know the person who’s in trouble, right?” said Chief Roy, who jumped to firefighting from a synthetic lawn business.
“So the mental part of it is much harder.”
(Just this week, he was at a head-on crash outside Navan in which he knew one of the drivers.)
There have also been rare cases of volunteer firefighters being rescued by their own platoon-mates, like a young farmer who had his arm mangled in a piece of equipment a couple of years ago.
So, it can hit home. Capt. Vanmunsteren, part of a family operation that milks about 110 head and works 700 acres, related to a call several years ago about a barn on fire on Canaan Road, one housing a milking herd. I have recognized the address.
“For me at least, that’s one of the most stressful, more adrenaline-rushing things you can see on a pager.”
He recalled the rush to get the animals out of the flaming barn — they have a tendency both to stay and, once out, return — knowing a family’s livelihood was at stake.
While still inside, there was the curious turn in which he felt “blasted” by a hose from behind. He would only discover later that dripping plastic had fallen on his back from him and he was momentarily aflame, “saved” from injury by another volunteer.
”That’s part of what you do. We’re little families, right? He said the service likes to “talk out” the tough calls to help anyone suffering distress or trauma, for which there is professional help as well.
“You don’t want those calls but at the same time, you’re happy you’re there to help.”
For more info, visit ottawa.ca/VolunteerFirefighter.
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