Egan: Ottawa Fire Services are looking for rural recruits — a hose, a hand, to save themselves

The service is embarking on one of its most ambitious recruitment drives this week to fill voids created by habitual retirements and departures, but also an unusual number of relocations driven by the pandemic.

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Ottawa has one of the most unusual fire departments in North America – a full third of the 1,500 firefighters are ‘volunteers’.

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If you look at a map, those roughly 500 “careerless” employees are responsible for covering around 80% of the municipality’s landmass – not one employee.

On a daily basis, this means that when a barn is on fire near Sarsfield or North Gower, or a car rolls over in Kinburn, pagers ring on the belts or nightstands of electricians, plumbers, farmers or traders, causing them to rush to the nearest station or jump directly into the “bunker” equipment stored in their vehicles.

Unlike the city, it is a system in which neighbors literally save each other.

This is the result of amalgamation, when a number of predominantly rural jurisdictions – from Cumberland to West Carleton, all with mostly volunteer pipe holders – joined established urban services (Ottawa, Gloucester, Nepean , Kanata) to form a giant service in 2001.

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It is a hybrid or “composite” system with its own problems, including recruitment.

The Ottawa Fire Service is embarking on one of its most ambitious recruitment drives this week to fill the gaps created by typical retirements and departures, but also by an unusual number of moves driven by the pandemic.

About 21,000 rural households will receive a recruitment postcard in the mail and messages will appear on fire engines, road signs and station doors across the countryside.

“Ottawa hasn’t had a volunteer recruitment drive since I volunteered, not at this level,” said East Area Manager Larry Roy, 51, who started volunteering in 2002.

“We are looking for mothers and fathers, farmers, entrepreneurs,” he said. “People are invested in their community.

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People like Anthony Vanmunsteren, 37, a dairy farmer near Sarsfield who, with his wife Lorraine, has four children, but managed to volunteer for 18 years. He is now a captain at Navan station, which answered around 140 calls in 2021, including around 90 that he handled himself.

It was also an unusual year for turnover: of the 20 “non-commissioned 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 popular belief, volunteer firefighters are not a pale version of the real thing, nor are they paid.

Without a few specific exceptions, they undergo as much training as career firefighters, but do so over a period of about eight months, usually two or three times a week, and must be just as physically fit. They are paid at rates ranging from approximately $19 per hour (probation) to $30 for a captain.

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There are 20 volunteer positions in the Ottawa system and the ideal complement is approximately 25 firefighters each. About 50 new employees were recruited last year and the target for this year is about the same. Right now the communities of Kinburn and Corkery need help out west.

“What differentiates an urban service from a rural service is that nine times out of 10 we know the person who has problems, right? said Chief Roy, who switched to firefighting from a synthetic turf company.

“So the mental part is much more difficult.”

(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, such as a young farmer who had his arm mutilated in a piece of equipment a few years ago.

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So he can hit home. Captain Vanmunsteren, part of a family operation that processes around 110 head and farms 700 acres, recounted a call several years ago about a burning barn on Canaan Road, one housing a dairy herd . He recognized the address.

“For me at least, it’s one of the most stressful, adrenaline-charged things you’ll ever see on a pager.”

He recalled the rush to get the animals out of the burning barn – they tend to stay and, once out, come back – knowing a family’s livelihood was at stake.

While still inside, there was the curious turn where he felt “exploded” by a pipe from behind. He would only later discover that dripping plastic had fallen on his back and he was momentarily on fire, “saved” from injury by another volunteer.

“It’s part of what you do. We are small families, aren’t we? He said the service likes to “talk” difficult calls to help anyone with distress or trauma, for whom there is also professional help.

“You don’t want those calls, but at the same time, you’re happy to be there to help.”

For more information, visit ottawa.ca/volunteerfirefighter.

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email kegan@postmedia.com

Twitter.com/kellyegancolumn

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