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Municipality of the District of Lunenburg launches firefighter recruitment retention strategy

Lunenburg volunteer firefighter Joe DeCoste and his girlfriend, Hebbville volunteer firefighter Emily Bowers, get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from helping to protect their communities' residents and properties.
Lunenburg volunteer firefighter Joe DeCoste and his girlfriend, Hebbville volunteer firefighter Emily Bowers, get a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from helping to protect their communities' residents and properties. - Peter Simpson

Number of volunteer firefighters declining in most departments

Tasked with the responsibility of providing fire protection to its residents, and facing a worrisome decline in the numbers of volunteer firefighters in most fire departments, the Municipality of the District of Lunenburg (MODL), has rolled out a comprehensive recruitment and retention strategy.

“Volunteers in the fire service, whether they be firefighters, auxiliary members or other volunteers, are vitally important to the provision of emergency services in the municipality,” said MODL Mayor Carolyn Bolivar-Getson, in a news release.

“We are very grateful for the efforts of our fire service volunteers and acknowledge the urgent need to support them in ensuring their viability,” she added.

Approved unanimously by MODL council, the strategy builds on the fact fire departments provide an invaluable resource to communities, often becoming the heart of the communities they serve.

Bolivar-Getson credited the work of the municipality’s Fire and Protective Services Committee for reaching out to fire departments for feedback on the challenges they face, and ways to mitigate them.

In 2017, the most recent year statistics are available, Lunenburg County’s estimated 700 volunteer firefighters from 26 fire departments responded to more than 1,100 emergency calls.

The shortage of young firefighters is apparent in most fire halls. At one department, the average age of the five firefighters who responded to the most emergency calls last year was 67. Remove the youngest man from his group and the average age of the remaining four top responders rises to 72.

Many departments resort to placing “help wanted” signs outside their halls, imploring residents to consider volunteering as firefighters, medical first responders, and for many non-fire-ground duties.

Labelling the initiative as a “strategic priority,” MODL plans to invest up to $60,000 annually in recruitment and retention efforts that will include, but are not limited to:

  • Development of specialized marketing materials.
  • Community outreach through attendance at local events to promote the benefits of volunteering.
  • Recruitment toolkits for fire departments.
  • Increased recognition for firefighters, auxiliary members and other fire service volunteers.

Spelled out in the 18-page document is a menu of marketing strategies that MODL intends to initiate over the next few months, including radio and TV advertising, posters, brochures and social media.

Included in the strategy document is a notation that “giving back to my community” is the most common reason why an individual joined the fire service, and that 90 per cent of those men and women consider their volunteer experience with the fire service to be satisfying and enjoyable.

Firefighter Joe DeCoste and his girlfriend, firefighter Emily Bowers, fit neatly into the categories of “giving back” and “satisfying experience.”

Many volunteer fire departments throughout Nova Scotia struggle to recruit and retain firefighters. The Petite Riviere Volunteer Fire Department has erected a large sign outside its fire hall, advertising the need for firefighters and other community-minded volunteers. - Peter Simpson
Many volunteer fire departments throughout Nova Scotia struggle to recruit and retain firefighters. The Petite Riviere Volunteer Fire Department has erected a large sign outside its fire hall, advertising the need for firefighters and other community-minded volunteers. - Peter Simpson

DeCoste and Bowers are both Level 1 certified firefighters. DeCoste volunteered with the New Glasgow Fire Department for three years, and has been with the Lunenburg and District Fire Department since 2016. Bowers has served for three years with the Hebbville Fire Department.

“I joined the fire department to help my community, and be part of the fire service’s brotherhood and sisterhood – a great group of men and women who watch each other’s backs,” said DeCoste.

“When we respond to a call, I always try to give my best, regardless of the outcome.”

A production worker at Lunenburg’s High Liner Foods, DeCoste said a simple gesture gives him joy.

“I enjoy it when we roll out of the fire hall with our lights and siren on and the little kids at the daycare centre next door all gather at the fence with big smiles on their faces, waving to us,” he said.

Bowers, a freelance financial journalist who moved to Hebbville when she bought her grandfather’s house four years ago, says firefighting is much different from anything she has done in her life.

“My career is in journalism – writing and editing – nothing mechanical or physical. Learning about firefighting strategies, the equipment and trucks has been both educational and challenging,” said Bowers, whose father, Peter Bowers, is a long-time member of the New Germany Fire Department.

“At the end of a good practice, or after an emergency call, there’s a satisfying feeling I don’t get from my job or other aspects of my life,” she said.

Bowers was a firefighter for a little more than a year when the King Steet fire happened in Bridgewater, and it was her hands-on experience fighting the stubborn overnight blaze that strengthened her commitment to the fire service.

“It was amazing seeing firefighters from so many different departments naturally working together to bring order into that chaos,” said Bowers.

“We are volunteers, but we are also professionals who are proud of what we accomplish.”

On Father’s Day, volunteers from 14 fire departments in Lunenburg, Queens, Shelburne and Annapolis counties postponed family festivities to help extinguish an early-morning landfill fire in Greenfield.

Later that night, three of those firefighters responded to a medical call where two of them performed CPR that helped to save a young man’s life. Overall, it was a rewarding Father’s Day, one remarked.

Bowers said the fire service is a huge part of her life, and the lives of her dad and boyfriend, and that it’s important people in her community get involved in some manner with the fire department.

“Our communities rely on us to protect them and their properties. We are on the front lines and we need to do everything we can to try to grow the fire service to ensure its sustainability,” she said.

Volunteering with the fire service can take many forms, not just on-scene firefighting. Examples include equipment maintenance, medical first response, traffic control at motor vehicle collisions, accounting, radio room, vehicle extrication, record- keeping duties, and other important tasks.

peter_simpson@hotmail.com

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