John Verrall is the chief of the Yarmouth Fire Department, but when he talks about the need to increase his department’s membership, he is speaking words that could apply to the fire service right across our region and beyond.
Chief Verrall isn’t sure what the solution is, but he says the department is exploring ways to bring its numbers up.
“We’re thinking about a whole bunch of things right now,” he says.
Regardless of what the department decides to do, the chief’s message is pretty simple.
“My message is we need volunteers and we need them now,” he says.
Back in the day, it seemed like everyone wanted to be a firefighter. Decades ago when there were different fire companies – Reliance, St. George, Neptune, Salvage Corp, etc. – the companies each had a full complement of volunteers and there were waiting lists of others wanting in.
“We had 20 members in our company and we had another 20 members waiting to get in,” recalled Charles Crosby recently, who was Captain of St. George, pumper #1 South End.
It’s not like this anymore.
CHALLENGES IN RECRUITMENT
Verrall says when he first came to the Yarmouth department five years ago, there were 22 names on the list of volunteer members. They eventually were able to bolster membership – bringing it up to 45 – but the number has since fallen again. At the time he was interviewed for this story, membership stood at about 33 (with a few new ones looking to join).
“This is indicative of every fire department in Canada right now, not just ours,” the chief says, adding that various factors likely are at play, including societal changes that have affected virtually all volunteer organizations.
“Since we have more of a requirement for training ... it’s harder for us to get (new people) than any other organization,” Verrall says. “I can join another organization now and I’m a member. With the fire service, you’ve got to join, you’ve got to take the training, you’ve got to meet the commitment (regarding minimum attendance for meetings, training etc.).”
Like Verrall, Digby Fire Chief Robert Morgan – whose department has 30 members – cites a number of things affecting the numbers. Morgan joined the department 40 years ago and he recalls it was a different world back then. Work schedules tended to be more conducive to being a volunteer firefighter.
“Now young families, they’re working seven days a week or they’re working shift work and it’s hard to commit to the training, the fundraising,” Morgan says. “When they’re off (work), their spouses are working. There’s parenting going on. Personally, I think that has a lot to do with it.”
While his department would welcome any new members, Morgan says they’re particularly interested in getting more young people – saying his department has no one under 30. With this in mind, the Digby department is starting a junior program. There are plans to go into the schools and talk to students, Morgan says. The department is looking to offer a bursary to one of its junior program participants when they graduate from high school.
TIMES HAVE CHANGED
Another longtime fire service member is Stewart Deveau, chief fire prevention officer with the Yarmouth department. Deveau joined the fire service about 40 years ago. Level 1 training wasn’t mandatory back then for a new firefighter, Deveau recalls, but it is now.
“Now it’s a requirement and it’s understandable as to why because with the changes in buildings and materials and stuff like that, there’s a hell of a lot more dangers,” he says, “so it’s imperative that the new people are trained properly – for their safety, as well as ours and that of the citizens.”
Deveau has words of encouragement for prospective new members with regard to training and the like, saying the hardest part is the first year.
“Get through your first year, then you’ll see it’s worth it,” he says.
As a longtime volunteer, Deveau says he has found the fire service to be a great way to contribute to the community.
“We stay in it because we love it,” he says. “It’s not a career for us, but it’s something we’ve been doing for years ... It’s like they say, once it’s in your blood, it’s in your blood. Those of us older fellows that are here, that’s why we’re still here. How does that saying go? The job of an old firefighter is to teach a young firefighter how to become an old firefighter.”
A REWARDING EXPERIENCE
Morgan shares Deveau’s view that the fire service can become a lifelong and rewarding way to serve one’s community.
Morgan remembers joining with a bunch of friends.
“It was kind of what we wanted to do and we did it together,” he says. “It’s like I told somebody the other day. They said, ‘how long are you going to stay?’ I said, ‘well, all my friends are here now.’ ... There’s a lot of social aspects to the fire departments as well.”
To anyone who might be interested in joining the Digby department, Morgan says they’re welcome to drop by the fire station Tuesday nights when they train. The department also is looking to have an open house in the spring.
Verrall notes there are benefits to being a firefighter – including tax breaks – and the Yarmouth department has, among other things, increased its training budget. Deveau points out that equipment and training are offered free of charge and expenses are covered when it comes to travel.
Ideally, Verrall would like to see the Yarmouth department have a membership of about 60. Beyond mere numbers, though, he stresses the importance of having those members properly trained, given the important work firefighters do. This is why members are required to meet a certain standard for attendance at fire department meetings and such.
“You need that minimum attendance standard,” Verrall says, “so that they can keep their skills up, to keep everybody safe, because that’s the main thing. Everybody goes home. Everybody stays safe.”