SAULT STE. MARIE - A new provincial government law requiring mandatory minimum certification standards for firefighters in municipalities has some chiefs of volunteer fire departments in rural townships voicing concerns.
The new firefighter certification requirements under the Fire Protection and Prevention Act of 1997 - known as ‘The Regulation’ - came into effect July 1, 2022.
Depending on the particular fire protection service needing certification, the deadline for compliance will be either July 1, 2026 or July 1, 2028.
Fire department chiefs in rural areas are asking why some of their firefighters - volunteers with day jobs who have been providing fire services for their communities for years - have to be certified, requiring them to leave their jobs and families and attend training courses at regional fire training centres.
That training also costs townships money.
Some chiefs have also said such certification requirements will discourage new volunteers from signing up.
“The original volunteer firefighter was ‘the neighbour helping neighbour’ but you might say that’s tending to go by the wayside because of the certification,” said Paul Ackland, Tarbutt Township Fire Department fire chief speaking to SooToday.
“The big response that some of us have is that we are volunteers. We mostly have full time jobs. Where does all this extra time come in? We train on the job.”
“Where is the funding coming from?” Ackland added.
“It’s hard to get the firefighters to be able to go and attend these classes because they’re volunteer firefighters with full time jobs and they have to take time off work.”
Some courses run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from Monday to Friday at regional training centres - including Sault Fire Services - far from home for many volunteer firefighters across the province.
Ackland estimated that a course for one of his firefighters would cost his township approximately $1,000.
“Are we going to get new recruits? What I think may happen is we’re going to get people who don’t want to get that involved, unfortunately. That’s what a lot of departments are saying. We have enough trouble getting recruits as it is. Is this going to scare off recruits? The Fire Marshal is saying ‘no, it shouldn’t’ but how can you be sure?” Ackland said.
“It’s going to take time, it’s going to take them away from their families, it’s going to take up their vacation time or days off over and above what they’ve already been willing to volunteer to the service,” said Kevin Sabourin, Municipality of Wawa assistant director of protective services.
“To send these individuals to proper training is going to increase the cost for a community to have a fire department. Are people going to be willing to give up their personal time? Some will, some won’t. It depends on their ethic towards doing the volunteer job. It is going to be a problem for a lot of communities because they’re not going to be able to train their individuals to the certification that the government wants.”
There is a worst case scenario to be considered for smaller communities, Sabourin said.
“The ultimate possibility is that the fire department would have to close or fold up because they don’t have enough staff to do the job because experienced firefighters are resigning or retiring and no new recruits coming in because they don’t want to do that type of extensive training,” Sabourin said.
“Some may fold, some may not. Only time can tell at this point. The possibility is there that fire protection will not happen in every community in the province of Ontario.”
“It would go to the point where people will step up and volunteer to do whatever they can to put that fire out and help the individuals that are in the home. It would go back to where the Good Samaritan has stepped up and done something. That’s a little far-fetched if it’s going to end up that way but that possibility is there, that some communities will only have people who will step up at the time to help individuals who are in need,” Sabourin said.
“That would be between the community and the OFM. There’s got to be a negotiation or communication between the two parties to see if they can get something that is workable for the community to continue a fire department.”
Certification - especially for more experienced volunteer firefighters - seems to be unnecessary, in the opinion of some township fire chiefs.
“It’s stuff that we’ve been doing for years. Most of the firefighters that have been on the service for 10 or 15 years, I feel, are qualified to do the job. Why do they now have to be certified? I understand that for new ones coming in that they want them to do this, and that’s fine,” Sabourin said.
“At this point there’s a push to hopefully get some funding from the government but we don’t know where that stands right now. I think the communities and the fire departments are going to have a conversation with the OFM to figure how they can go ahead to make sure they’re following this legislation. Sending experienced firefighters out for the certification is questionable because they really don’t want to go back to school,” Sabourin said.
“I have no qualms about the training content and continuous learning. I have been a strong proponent of that for many years. My grief comes from the process attached to certification,” said Ron Smith, Johnson Township Volunteer Fire Department chief.
“The older you get the less comfortable you are with testing and proving yourself and that’s also for some of the younger people. Many of them haven’t been through college and they’re expecting them to respond to questions in tests, academically, that are from a college level program.”
Smith said he and many other fire chiefs will be attending the Northeastern Fire Education Conference and Trade Show from Thursday, March 23 to Saturday, March 25 in Huntsville and that certification will be a topic of discussion.
While certification has its critics, it has at least one supporter in the Algoma District.
“We got ahead of this back in 2019,” said Steve Hemsworth, Prince Township Fire Department chief.
“The Fire Marshal’s office had been saying for a long time ‘get ready, mandatory minimum training is coming.’ We’re probably further ahead than most departments are. We’re actually in really good shape.”
“For the smaller places that have not been doing training, especially a lot of places where you have a chief that’s been around for 20 or 30 years, where they’ve done the things the same way for the last 20 or 30 years, this is going to be a big change but it’s a change that has to happen because people are going to get hurt,” Hemsworth said.
Hemsworth said he acknowledges the time and effort for volunteer firefighters to be certified at regional training centres and the expense to municipalities - stating that some regional training centres are charging $1,000 to $1,500 for courses - but approves of the certification requirement.
“I know why they’re doing it and I’m for it. This is a dangerous business. There were a lot of departments - and we were one of them - where people were not trained and doing things they probably shouldn't have been doing, we had old equipment and it wasn’t safe.”
Hemsworth said many of his firefighters have been trained in interior fire attack, auto extrication and HAZMAT calls and that he has held courses for firefighters in Prince Township, Tarbutt, Wawa, Aweres Township, Mississauga First Nation and Echo Bay.
Hemsworth said there are currently 12 Prince Township firefighters who have full training with three more set to take more training.
Hemsworth said there is no concern over attracting new recruits, stating that there is a waiting list to join the Prince Township Fire Department.