Bonnechere Valley Firefighters Brendan Rouselle and Alex Goldsmith with Junior Firefighters Wyatt Lehman, Justin Johnson, Eric Seguin, Jean Le Joie Isabel MacDonald, Kimberley Gray, Aiden Seguin and Fire Chief Darryl Wagner.

Eganville – Bonnechere Valley Township Fire Chief Darryl Wagner is hoping a new pilot program involving students will help recruit future firefighters for his and other departments and at the same time provide students thinking of a firefighting career with a glimpse of what such a job might look like.

Six high school students were introduced to the fire department last Wednesday and while most of the two-hour initial meeting might have been a bit dry as it was conducted in a classroom setting, Chief Wagner said the students’ interest went up a notch or two when they were introduced to equipment and some basic firefighting techniques.

“It was a little dry for them, but we did finally get them out and into the hall,” he said. “We will get them to the floor with the firefighters eventually, but for right now we are going to keep them separate until we get them a basic understanding of what goes on here.”

Many rural volunteer fire departments are facing the same challenge: a decline in the number of firefighters. Currently, the BV department has 19 full-time volunteers, but the preferred number to cover both the Eganville and Foymount stations is 40.

Although firefighters are paid for the time they spend training and responding to calls, there are no full-time firefighters in the majority of Ontario municipalities because it is not affordable.

It is also a known fact the number of volunteers has been in a rapid decline in recent years and that presents a bigger challenge for departments.

Often times, the number of personnel available to respond to day-time calls is low because most of the firefighters are employed at full-time jobs. Not only is this a significant problem in BV, but in many communities across the province. Weekend and night-time calls are different as firefighters are more readily available.

Another challenge for the departments without full-time personnel is the demand put on volunteers to become certified firefighters. Often, this takes up to two years and involves a significant amount of time from the firefighter and a significant investment from the municipality.

“When I started in 2000, people were tripping to get in. There was a waiting list,” Chief Wagner said. “It’s a big commitment now. Whenever we hire a new one, we have up to two years to get them ceertified

“Fortunately, we have a regional training centre opening at CNL (Chalk River) and that is something Renfrew County has needed for a long time.”

New firefighters give up their weekends and in some instances vacation time to become certified and it’s a commitment not everyone is willing to make.

“The mandatory certification is a huge commitment and I think it is a big part of the issue, trying to find the time. In today’s climate, I don’t think there are a lot of people who want to give up their time.”
Chief Wagner said being a member of a volunteer fire department is a part-time job and that’s how it is explained to new recruits.

As for the secondary school students, the chief said they all indicated they were coming back to the next session.

“We have to keep it engaging for them,” he said.

One of the main benefits of exposing students to the fire department now is they might decide to become a member if they find employment in the area.

“They would already have a good understanding and good basic training.”

Besides getting a taste of what a career in firefighting might be like, Chief Wagner said the students will become certified in CPR training and become familiar with the use of defibrillators. Students can also use their time to put towards their required 40 hours of community service.

“We can’t certify them in a chainsaw course, but we are going teach them the basics,” he said. “They will come away with some kills they might not have if they decided not to pursue the firefighter route.”

Chief Wagner said the program is important to small, rural departments and he is hoping it will get the interest of many more students.

“If they decide to find employment in the area after high school, we have people coming up,” he said. “We’re trying to get them excited about it.

“I am hoping it flies,” he added. “Last night was a good start.”

Chief Wagner said fire protection is a vital service to any community and can only be provided with people joining a department.

“We are facing a shortage of firefighters and if we want to maintain a level of service, we need to bring our numbers up,” he said.