There aren’t many things COVID-19 hasn’t impacted; the Huntsville/Lake of Bays Fire Department is no exception. The department runs a new recruit class every year, but that was put on hold in 2020 due to the virus and the many questions and uncertainties surrounding it.
“We weren’t able to do a recruit class last year because of the virus and lockdown,” said Huntsville/Lake of Bays Fire Chief Rob Collins. “We do have some turnover of firefighters each year and rely on the recruit class to keep our numbers up. There are some stations where our numbers are lower than we’d like them to be at this time.”
With a full complement the department typically has about 110 firefighters. Currently there are 81 members.
Collins said they’re looking to hire 15 new members, possibly more, noting that stations 20 in Port Cunnington, and 30 in Hillside, are running at less than half of their capacity.
“This represents two years of attrition,” he said.
Although firefighters in smaller communities are known as volunteers, Collins said the position with the fire department is a paid, on-call, part-time job. Firefighters are paid for attending training, maintenance, and responding to emergency calls.
“It’s a crappy part-time job but the pay is good,” said the chief with a laugh. “The hours are terrible. You’re called in to work at all hours of the day and night, plus holidays. The work is hard, it’s dangerous, and there’s a lot of training involved. But if it’s a career you feel a calling for, it’s the greatest job you can do. I’ve been doing this for over 30 years and started out as a volunteer firefighter jumping out of bed at 4 a.m. and working 12 or 14 hours on scene, sweating my butt off and coming home stiff and sore but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
New recruits can expect the first several months of the job to be demanding.
“A recruit’s first 10 months with the department are the most intense, that’s when the biggest time commitment is there,” said Paul Calleja, the department’s training and suppression captain. “On top of the 160 hours of recruit training you now have obligations to maintenance, regular training nights, and responding to calls. It’s not uncommon to see a new recruit put in anywhere from 300 to 350 hours in their first year. It’s pretty significant.”
New recruits are required to train to the National Fire Protection Association’s standard with the opportunity to achieve certification. The department’s recruit program starts in September and runs about 10 weekends, with a break in December and carrying over into the next year.
Collins said the job requires a good level of physical fitness and mental toughness. The ideal candidate will have both of those qualities and the ability to leave their regular job to be able to attend emergency calls at any time.
He said the department is also looking for diversity.
“Ideally the fire department looks like the community it serves. Typically women are 50 to 51 per cent of the population and we get nowhere near that in terms of applications for firefighters,” said Collins. “There’s lots of room to improve there. Women are really underrepresented in the fire service. I want to encourage women who think they’re suited for the job to apply.”
Once the first 10 months have passed, Calleja said the time commitment decreases significantly with the average member putting in about 180 hours a year.
Being a firefighter isn’t all about fighting fires. The department responds more to medical emergencies, false alarms, and motor vehicle crashes than fires. Fighting fires represents about 10 per cent of the department’s calls per year.
“To be a member on a paid on-call or volunteer fire department it has to become your lifestyle,” said Calleja. “What that means is that the commitment is there, the passion is there and remains there, even during the mundane or routine periods. You have a professionalism about you that you are committed, even when you know you might not be used to the full extent of your skill set, you’re there to support the rest of the members that may be more involved at that particular emergency. It’s all part of being a team. You do it out of duty, out of responsibility. That’s the difference between being professional and not.”
The department is hosting a virtual meeting on Jan. 28 at 7 p.m. for residents who may be interested in applying as a firefighter. To receive the Zoom link register here before noon on Jan. 28.
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