The number of volunteer firefighters working out of Greater Sudbury’s fire halls has plummeted by 38.6 per cent during the past decade, from 339 to 208.
These annual figures account for year-end totals, with the current total dropping by an additional dozen members since Dec. 31, 2022, to its current 196.
A city spokesperson indicated the annual volunteer recruitment process hasn’t taken place yet this year, which should bolster their numbers a bit.
The local drop in volunteer firefighters echoes a trend seen across North America, Greater Sudbury Fire Services interim deputy chief Craig Lawrence told Sudbury.com, noting that the Nickel City is far from alone in seeing volunteer numbers plummet.
While broader volunteerism has also dropped off in general, he said that both the amount of training required for firefighters and call volumes have been increasing.
“It's the perfect storm to see the attrition rates that you're seeing,” he said, adding that fewer people have enough time available to commit to the fire service — a problem that will only be exacerbated by an increase in the number of mandatory training hours.
While the fire department could reduce service levels, such as doing away with interior fire attacks, to reduce training requirements, this is not the direction they have been directed to proceed with.
Pulling aside another example, Lawrence noted that auto extraction alone requires 100 hours of training — a life-saving service which is particularly important at small fire stations charged with responding to incidents along major highways.
The Great Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Census 2021, prepared by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs Answer the Call Committee, saw 37 per cent of Canada’s 3,200 departments respond.
In it, they estimated the total number of volunteer firefighters as of April 1, 2021, was approximately 100,000, which is a 20.7 per cent decrease from the 126,000 recorded in 2016.
“It’s certainly going to have to be a multi-pronged approach,” Lawrence said of addressing the widespread volunteer shortfall. “There's no golden ticket here.”
A series of public meetings has been scheduled for residents to learn more and weigh in on sweeping changes proposed by the city which would see several fire/paramedic stations consolidated, and in some cases relocated.
Although the changes have been proposed for various reasons, including asset renewal in response to the aging state of emergency services infrastructure, volunteer numbers also play a role.
Only one member on average has been responding to calls from the Skead and Beaver Lake stations in recent years. Skead currently has one volunteer member, and Beaver Lake has three.
By consolidating certain stations, each location will draw from a larger catchment area and ideally attract more volunteers as a result.
“At least on the first responding truck, you should have four firefighters on it,” Lawrence said. “That's very hard to do when you only have six or seven firefighters reporting from a station.”
In Skead, a group of community stewards have banded together in an attempt to save their community’s fire station, and have already forwarded a 417-name petition to city council.
Although the station currently has one volunteer firefighter, it had 13 a decade ago.
Fire station advocate Nicole Everest said a fatal 2013 boat crash and subsequent fire on Lake Wanapitei left some members disenchanted due to a series of communications issues that befell its victims, and that subsequent years’ lacklustre recruitment efforts compounded matters.
There’s a “lack of interest from the city” in recruiting firefighters, she said — a point city officials have denied, pointing to various recruitment efforts over the past several years, including flyers and signs installed on roadways.
Alongside an ongoing, open recruitment program, Lawrence said that the upcoming Camp Molly for girls and young women interested in firefighting, will help get some youngsters’ feet in the door.
“We're gonna have to have a much more concerted effort of catching people early, beyond just our normal recruitment practices.”
Tyler Clarke covers city hall and political affairs for Sudbury.com.