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City begins testing prospective volunteer firefighters

Greater Sudbury Fire Services received 76 applications for this year’s recruitment intake of volunteer firefighters, and these prospects are currently going through a vetting process

Hauling heavy hoses, climbing ladders and crawling into confined spaces, this year’s slate of 76 volunteer firefighter applicants are currently going through the rounds to prove themselves.

Of these applicants, 31 were invited to undertake physical assessment testing at the firefighters’ training grounds in Azilda on Wednesday.

Prior to taking part in the tests, which included such exercises as carrying a heavy hose up a four flights of stairs, applicant Lindon Shanks said his main motivation for joining the Waters department is to help his community, and potentially leverage it into a career.

A bush firefighter by trade, the Lively resident said his winters are free to work as a volunteer firefighter.

Fellow applicant Derek Weiss, also of Lively, is a physiotherapist by trade, and said his motivation to become a firefighter also comes down to community stewardship.

“Somebody’s got to be around when stuff goes sideways,” he said.

This year’s batch of 76 prospects applied between May 1, 2022, and May 31, 2023, Deputy Fire Chief Nathan Melin told Sudbury.com. 

When contacted earlier this summer, 15 prospects withdrew, which brought this year’s total down to 61 candidates. The most common reasons applicants gave for dropping out is that they relocated outside of a volunteer fire station’s catchment area, and they became too busy.

“There is a significant commitment that’s required in order to be a volunteer firefighter, especially with the certification coming out,” Melin said, adding there is “significant training is involved during the first two years.”

Physical assessments took place on July 13 and July 26, with another day of assessments to take place in August, at a time considered most convenient for those who couldn’t make the first two dates work.

Although the final results of the physical assessments won’t be known until after the final date in August, Melin said a couple candidates have already dropped off due to their blood pressure testing too high (greater than 150/100). 

“We want to make sure we’re not putting any stress on people and that they are healthy to go through,” he said, adding they’ve been encouraged to see their doctors to get their blood pressures under control. 

They’ll be allowed to return for the session in August, at which time their blood pressure and heart rates (which must be under 100 beats per minute) will be measured again, both before and after engaging in physical assessment tests.

Greater Sudbury Fire Services’ goal is to hire 50 people this year, which Melin said they will be able to handle by running two certification programs simultaneously.

New training requirements have made it so volunteer firefighters need to undertake a total of 260 hours of training within their first two years, including 70 hours online and 190 hours of practical training.

Their first year of training will be spread out over one 10-hour weekend day per month, Melin said, noting that firefighters are paid for all of their training hours.

Members are released to fire halls after 40 hours of training, at which time they can begin taking part in weekly upkeep training alongside other members. They can respond to calls, but will have restrictions placed on them until such time as they are fully trained.

Once fully trained and hired, volunteer firefighters are required to attend at least 25 per cent of calls their station is dispatched to, and attend at least a dozen of the weekly three-hour evening training sessions their station hosts, per year. 

Depending on how many of the current batch of applicants end up proceeding to training, Melin said the city might hold another recruitment drive this year, with advertising, signs and door knocking to bring in more recruits.

The city’s volunteer firefighter recruitment efforts and ability to retain members have come under scrutiny in recent months in the wake of sweeping proposed changes to the city’s emergency services infrastructure. Although primarily a means of renewing infrastructure, the city’s low volunteer numbers have also come up as part of the rationale for amalgamating certain stations.

During recent city council deliberations, the city’s elected officials opted to keep the Beaver Lake and Skead stations open, despite city administrators recommending them for closure.

With these stations’ longevity dependent on the city’s ability to fill them with volunteer firefighters, it’s of critical importance that people in these communities show up to join.

In Skead, a community effort resulted in 13 people being invited to attend this year’s physical assessment testing. In Beaver Lake, only two applicants came in for physical assessments.

The Beaver Lake station currently has four volunteer firefighters, while Skead has one. Although the Fire Underwriters Survey typically requires a minimum of 15 members per station for their catchment area to be considered protected, Melin said their goal is a minimum of 20.

There are currently 185 volunteer firefighters serving 18 stations, meaning that even if the city achieves its goal of bringing in 50 newcomers for training this year, they’ll still fall short.

Taking a page from the community recruitment effort in Skead, Melin said fire stations with low volunteer numbers will be targeted with community meetings and other efforts to drive up volunteerism.

“They’ve done a great job out in Skead recruiting. It’s taken a community effort, but it has obviously paid off,” he said. 

As a member of the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs’ recruitment and retention committee, Melin said firefighters from across the province discuss the latest in recruitment and retention practices.

“If they’re working in other communities, there’s a good chance they may work here as well,” he said, adding that some good ideas might come out of their next meeting in September. 

In 2021, the city hired 64 people from the 213 people to apply as part of the largest single recruitment effort in Greater Sudbury Fire Services’ history. Of the 213 applicants, 147 proceeded to physical testing, 90 were interviewed, 72 went on to training and 64 were hired.

Last year, there were 64 applicants, of whom 42 were invited to physical assessment training, 28 attended physical assessment training, 26 were then interviewed and 24 were hired.

The city’s training capacity was only 25 last year, due in part to a significant increase in provincially mandated training requirements, from 40 hours to the current 260. Melin said they also took feedback from the 2021 effort into consideration, where members felt they didn’t have as much time for “hands-on” practice as they needed to feel comfortable.

Although city council approved a series of sweeping changes to emergency services infrastructure this summer, including the amalgamation of several stations (click here for a report on the decisions made on June 27, and here for a report on the decisions made on July 11), Melin said they’re still recruiting for all of the current 18 volunteer fire stations.

“Even with the station consolidations being approved by council, we will continue to recruit from all volunteer areas,” he said, adding that even if stations begin closing, “we would still be looking for recruitment within that specific area” to serve out of the nearest station.

City council’s next decision point regarding emergency services infrastructure will take place later this year, when they debate the proposed 2024-27 capital budget.

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.


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Tyler Clarke

About the Author: Tyler Clarke

Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.
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