The City of Greater Sudbury has offered positions to 42 volunteer firefighter recruits, who will undergo their first 10 hours of training during the first weekend of December.
As with every year’s recruitment cycle, each step of the process has found prospective firefighters drop off.
The season started with 76 people applying for volunteer firefighter positions between May 1, 2022, and May 31, 2023. Of these applicants, 15 withdrew, bringing the net total down to 61. The most commonly reported reasons applicants gave for dropping out is they relocated outside of a volunteer fire station’s catchment area, or they became too busy.
Remaining applicants were invited to take part in physical testing at the firefighters’ training grounds in Azilda during the summer.
Of those who went through physical testing, 42 were recently offered positions.
Since that time, four of the people offered positions have withdrawn, including Skead prospect Mike Mercier, who told Sudbury.com he was unable to commit to weekend training.
“I’m a business guy,” he said. “Like most volunteers, I might not be able to make all of them.”
A lot of the applicants have full-time jobs, Mercier said, “so not everyone’s going to be able to do this.”
The city needs to do more to accommodate volunteer firefighters, he said, adding that if they continue doing things the way they have been, their numbers will continue to fall.
Volunteer fire hall advocate Nicole Everest shared Mercier’s story with Sudbury.com, citing it as evidence the city’s handling of volunteers has been set up to ensure fire halls staffed by volunteer members fail.
Between provincially mandated training requirement increases and an already strained staff, Deputy Chief Jesse Oshell said they’re as accommodating as they can be with applicants’ schedules, but there are limits.
“It’s not that we want to push anyone out who’s interested in doing this,” he said.
“If there are underlying circumstances where they have to miss a date, perhaps up to maybe two during the entire duration, we can work with them,” Deputy Chief Nathan Melin said, adding that doing so would likely delay the member’s certification by a year due to limited training capacity.
“It’s mandatory training, so if we can’t deliver it, unfortunately, we’re not going to have success with that individual coming into our program and at the end of it being able to provide service to the community,” Oshell said.
Recruits aren’t shown the door, he clarified, adding that when they’re unable to find the time they’re asked to return for the next training cycle, which have been taking place annually.
Sudbury.com connected with the two deputy chiefs for an update on how this year’s batch of recruits have been panning out, as well as gather context regarding whatever flexibility they offer recruits when it comes to training.
Volunteer firefighters are required to undertake 140 hours of training during their first year, and an additional 140 during their second year. Of these hours, 200 are in-person and 80 are virtual.
The in-person hours are scheduled on weekends, with recruits expected to attend 10 training sessions, which are 10-hours each. They’re given a choice between two dates per training session. For the first session, they’ve been given a choice of Dec. 2 or Dec. 3.
Each training module builds upon the previous one.
Firefighters are “volunteer” in name only, which the department has maintained so they can still receive a federal tax benefit for being a volunteer firefighter.
“They are paid for all the work they do,” Oshell said.
“It is, truly, a part-time job that they are coming into for us, and that job has requirements that are scheduled. In much the same manner, we need them to complete those components so that we can ensure they are safe and competent and capable of doing that position, and we are able to provide to the community our mandate of fire protection.”
Greater Sudbury Fire Services has a committee evaluating their volunteer recruitment and retention, through which Melin said they’ve been looking into partnering with Cambrian College to run an additional program during weekday evenings to accommodate more prospective members.
They also have a business case in front of city council for consideration during 2024-25 budget deliberations seeking two additional full-time training officers, which would bring their new total to six and carry an annual budget impact of $233,000.
Joining their business case to hire eight additional full-time firefighters, the case to hire two full-time training officers is linked to what Oshell described as strained services which rely too greatly on overtime, resulting in staff burnout.
“We have to have, contractually, a minimum of 22 staff on duty every single day, so in order to ensure that, I have to bring in overtime every single day to help ensure I’m meeting that obligation and protecting the community,” he said.
The two additional full-time training officers would ensure the department has the right balance of employees to maintain required service, he said, adding, “I think it’s reasonable to say we could do a bit more accommodation in the future, but to a point.”
As it stands, the city is still playing catch-up when it comes to training.
In 2021, they hired 64 volunteer firefighters, which was followed by 25 in 2022.
The drop likely had to do with an increase in training requirements, Oshell said, noting they jumped from a 40-hour program to the current 280-hour effort spread over two years.
Although recruits prior to 2022 didn’t have to undertake the full breadth of training at the time, many of them now face the prospect of fulfilling the new requirement, which Oshell said has contributed to their current capacity issues when it comes to training.
Since whatever training opportunities they’re able to offer is dependent on resources, it will ultimately be up to city council to determine how much flexibility the city is able to offer volunteer firefighter prospects when it comes to fulfilling their training requirements.
The initial 280 hours of training is in addition to weekly three-hour upkeep training alongside other members at volunteer fire (members must attend at least a dozen per year), and calls for service (members are required to attend at least 25 per cent of calls their station is dispatched to).
A lot of people simply don’t have the time, Oshell said.
“Personal commitments just overwhelm their time, and they come back and say they can’t commit,” he said, adding the local decline in volunteer firefighters has also been seen at stations throughout North America.
Of the 42 people offered volunteer firefighter positions, five were in Beaver Lake and 11 were in Skead.
These fire halls are of particular note, because their longevity within the city’s ongoing modernization/consolidation of emergency service infrastructure depends on more volunteers enlisting. Earlier this year, the Beaver Lake station had four members and the Skead station had one. The commonly accepted minimum number of firefighters per station is 15, of whom at least four must consistently respond to calls, year-round.
More information about becoming a volunteer firefighter can be found on the city’s website by clicking here.
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.