Sunday night, an already short-staffed Wellington Fire Department, in the span of less than two hours, was called to three different incidents — a mutual aid fire call in Ellerslie, a medical call and a potential propane leak.
With only 16 members, short at least 10 of a comfortable number, firefighters had to be pulled from the mutual aid call to respond to a third and potentially dangerous call at a home within their own district.
Long-time Wellington firefighter Desmond Arsenault said his department has been struggling in recent years with a shortage of volunteers.
“We are fortunate that we do have Miscouche and Tyne Valley as our backup but we want to make sure that our district is assured that we are able to protect them and that we have the backup available that we can call on to make sure that the incidents are looked after,” said the 14-year veteran of the department. “When there are three calls like this of course the adrenaline is pumping and you want to make sure that everyone is safe and that they are not rushing into anything that is going to endanger their own lives.
“Safety is always the number one concern, not just for the houses that we respond to but our own members as well.”
At one time, the department, which services 700 homes from Grand River to Union Corner to Port Hill and points in between, was bustling with 45 firefighters.
But over the years, the time commitment involved coupled with increasingly busy lives of its members and even a lack of work in the area reduced the number to 16.
Even with efforts to recruit new members, resulting in two people now in training, there seems to be no end in sight to the shortage, said Arsenault.
But, he added, residents within the fire district shouldn’t be worried, yet.
“We’re keeping very close contact with the neighbouring fire districts to make them aware that we may have to call upon them for help. We do that on occasion, it’s normal. You don’t want to do that but it is par for the course,” said Arsenault. “Some people don’t realize when that pager goes off you have to go. It’s a 24-hour thing.”
He admitted it was unusual to have three calls coming in within such a short time.
The mutual aid call to help Tyne Valley with a structure fire in Ellerslie came in just before 9 p.m. The Wellington department sent three trucks and 10 men to the scene.
Arsenault stayed back at the fire hall and was on his way home when the second call — one for medical aid — came in just after 10.
“As we were racing to the scene… we get another, a third page, that we had to go to this possible propane leak. We were like this is insane,” he said in describing the situation. “I jumped on the phone and called our safety guy who was on scene in Tyne Valley and they just dropped everything and came.”
Miscouche fire department was called in to help with the third call.
Wellington firefighters who were on scene, in full breathing apparatus, took all precautionary measures in approaching that scene, testing for gas outside the door before making their way in.
“It turned out to be a non-issue, this time, fortunately,” said Arsenault.
But, he admitted, with half of the department’s 16 members currently working outside the district and two members currently on leave to work out west, there are concerns whether enough members will be available the next time a similar situation occurs.
The department has advertised for new recruits, last year held an open house and is planning another open house in the coming months.
There are some financial benefits to the job. Volunteer firefighters have the cost of their driver’s license paid and the cost of registering one vehicle. A new tax break is also a big boost, said Arsenault.
Of the 75 to 80 calls the fire department responds to annually, 50 per cent are for medical aid. Fewer and fewer are actual fire calls, said Arsenault.
“I think because of the size of the commitment, people are staying away. Also, we have a lot of young members, just because of the economy, that are heading out west, going to Alberta to work. It’s hard,” he admitted, adding there are two training session a month, a regular meeting and a maintenance night where members are required to be at the hall to do cleaning and maintenance of vehicles and equipment. “It is a big commitment, not just of your time but time away from family.”
But he remains hopeful that new recruits will come forward and answer the call.
Anyone interested must be over the age of 18, have a clean criminal record, provide their driving record and be screened by the department prior to being approved for training.
“There are lots of benefits to becoming a fireman, the camaraderie of being with other firefighters and there are life skills you can learn, safety skills you can take back home to your family and your work environment,” said Arsenault, who added, “and you are helping protect your community.”