Firefighters give so much

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Sometimes, governments put the cart before the horse. Sometimes, you might argue that they are buying the cart and, in the process, ignoring the fact that it also has to feed the horse.

For the last month or so, the provincial government has had a cabinet minister trundling around the province, announcing provincial government assistance for firefighting equipment. A lucky few towns will get new pumpers and rescue vehicles — more will get smaller amounts of money to help buy firefighting clothing, breathing apparatus and upgrades to their communications systems.

Equipment is fine — in fact, it’s necessary. But it’s only a part of the whole equation.

Right now, there are close to 5,900 volunteer firefighters in the province, serving in 272 departments. The departments vary widely — there are small departments with single trucks and barely a handful of calls every year, and there are others that are out on fire, accident and medical calls several times a day.

It’s not the kind of volunteerism that suits everyone. Even without the calls, the changing nature of firefighting and firefighting equipment means a healthy amount of training, and often there are the demands of fundraising and other community service — from traffic control at community events on down — that chew into limited family time.

The provincial government and municipalities regularly point out how grateful they are for the volunteer commitment; what they don’t often point out is just how valuable volunteers are to the bottom line.

The U.S. National Fire Protection Association points out that municipal governments in that country save

US$139.8 billion every year because of unpaid volunteers.

After all, a volunteer is on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Replacing a single volunteer is, at minimum, shifts for three paid firefighters. Paid firefighters, and deservedly so, make a reasonable wage. Imagine, then, if the province’s municipal governments had to come up with enough money to hire almost 18,000 paid firefighters — imagine also what that would do to the average municipal tax bill.

The problem for municipalities is that fewer and fewer people are willing to make the kind of commitment needed to be a firefighter.

In rural Newfoundland and Labrador, there are additional problems. There’s the across-the-board aging of the province, the fact that many young people are working out of province and returning for only part of the year and, in some cases, the sheer volume of calls. It’s one thing if you’re training one evening a week and heading out to two or three calls a week or even two or three a month; few families can tolerate family members heading out on calls on an almost daily basis.

As it hands out the money, the provincial government likes to point out things like, “Through Budget 2014, over $5 million is being invested to support fire services, equipment and vehicles across the province” and “From 2003 to 2013, the provincial government contributed to the purchase of 125 emergency response vehicles for communities throughout Newfoundland and Labrador.”

Put in context: in the last decade, the province has helped supply emergency response vehicles to fewer than half of the departments that fight fires in this province for free.

It’s a drop in the bucket, compared to the time and effort volunteer firefighters contribute.

Organizations: U.S. National Fire Protection Association

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador

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