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Joint fire chief position created for Wakaw and Cudworth departments

Reeve says 90 per cent of the volunteer members were in favour of the proposed changes.
A part-time paid fire chief will take over the management of the Cudworth-Hoodoo Fire Department and the Wakaw-Hoodoo Fire Department.

WAKAW — The responsibilities of a firefighter are many and the changing demographics of rural Canada mean that having volunteers who can drop what they are doing and attend to a fire or rescue is an ever-present challenge. Add to that all the responsibilities of the role of fire chief and the pool of those willing and able to take on the job shrinks precipitously.

To respond to that challenge, the RM of Hoodoo together with the Town of Wakaw and the Town of Cudworth have decided to create a 60 per cent FTE fire chief position. The individual who will ultimately be hired for the position will take over the management of the Cudworth-Hoodoo Fire Department and the Wakaw-Hoodoo Fire Department. 

Reeve for the RM of Hoodoo, Derreck Kolla, said that the idea has been around for a while and sort of moved to the back burner because of COVID, this year they began talking about the issue again.

Fire Chief Bauman took on the responsibility of the Wakaw-Hoodoo Department as an interim measure a few years ago and has expressed the desire to retire, and with none of the current members in a position to consider taking on the job, the conversation was brought back to the forefront.

Kolla said they had been in contact with the council at Carrot River who had created a paid fire chief position a few years ago. Using the information they received from Carrot River, enabled them to develop a plan quickly.

Before making any changes, special information meetings were held with the members of each fire department separately in April 2023. Members were able to ask questions and express their opinions and Kolla shared that about 90 per cent of the members were in favour of the proposed changes. 

Kolla said the desired result is to provide the best possible service to the people who depend on them.

The RM of Hoodoo is the largest stakeholder in local firefighting as they own the equipment, and partner with both the Town of Wakaw and the Town of Cudworth. When a fire committee was struck in June 2023, it was decided to have three persons on the committee representing the RM of Hoodoo and two or three each from Wakaw and Cudworth. The new fire chief will be an employee of the RM for administrative purposes, but the two towns will contribute to the wages through transfer agreements.

Special service agreements already exist with the RM of Fish Creek, the Resort Village of Wakaw Lake and the Wakaw Lake Regional Park who pay a predetermined service fee, and just recently the RM of Hoodoo has entered into mutual service agreements with the RM of Bayne and the RM of Three Lakes. 

The advantages of having a single person running both fire halls will be seen in greater co-ordination and co-operation between the two locations. As it stands now, both fire halls have different trucks and the firefighters at each respective hall are trained on the trucks that they have and are therefore unable to cross over to assist the other. Under the new arrangement, firefighters will have joint training where they will have the opportunity to learn both sets of equipment, so there should never be a time when a crew has to attend a fire with less than a full contingent of firefighters. With volunteer crews, there are naturally some who hold jobs outside of the communities and therefore are not able to respond to every fire call, being able to draw from both crews will offset that. 

To volunteer as a firefighter, individuals must be at least 18 years of age, (although junior members are accepted to assist on fire calls), hold a valid driver’s license and live in and/or work in the response area. Interested candidates should also be physically capable of performing various firefighting tasks. The protective equipment itself can be very heavy, so prospective firefighters not only need to have the necessary skills to fight fires, but they also need a certain level of physical fitness to allow them to carry out the tasks involved. The duties of a firefighter include but are not limited to suppressing fires, protecting residents, providing first responder and pre-hospital care to victims, and educating the public. Volunteer firefighters are expected to complete a certain number of training hours per month, according to the regulations set out by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Canadian Volunteer Fire Service Association.

In 2016 in Canada, there were 126,000 volunteer firefighters. Last year, there were roughly 90,000 and this number constitutes roughly 70 per cent of the total firefighting workforce in Canada, according to the Canadian Association of Fire Chief’s census report for 2022. This was an almost 10 per cent decrease from a year before. There are undoubtedly many factors contributing to the drop in volunteer firefighters including changes in family dynamics, but one of the big factors is an aging demographic. Last year, the number of individuals above the age of 50 represented 25 per cent of the firefighting workforce. Meanwhile, younger Canadians are less inclined to volunteer. Ken McMullen, CFAC president said in an interview with Global News in June, “We’re having difficulties recruiting the younger population to volunteer the same way that their parents or grandparents did in our communities.”

The strain to recruit and retain volunteer firefighters is felt from coast to coast and comments made in a CBC News article from June 6, 2023, could just as easily come from firefighters in Saskatchewan or elsewhere. Being a volunteer firefighter is a 24-7 role and is disruptive to family, home, and work life. “One minute you're washing dishes, the next minute you're at the end of a hose line or you're driving a truck,” said 61-year-old New Brunswicker, Peter Saunders, a volunteer firefighter for more than 30 years and who previously served as chief. “You're asking for a lot for someone to be a volunteer today in the fire department business.” The responsibilities of a firefighter have greatly expanded beyond fires. Calls now include car accidents, medical calls, off-road rescues, overdoses, and forest fires. The varying incidents require more specialized training and some calls can be traumatic, especially grim car accidents. Saunders suggests one solution could be recruiting volunteers in whatever capacity they're willing to lend a hand. “Maybe there's some people who don't want to go near car accidents, or maybe there's some people who don't want to wear an air pack. That's fine, but I'm telling you there's a job for you somewhere that you're going to be comfortable with,” he said.

Across the country an increasing number of rural departments are implementing paid positions either in the role of fire chiefs or even some paid firefighters to supplement the volunteer crews, but that all comes with a substantial price tag for the municipalities they operate in. While many districts across the country only pay their volunteers for mileage, firefighters as part of Wakaw-Hoodoo and Cudworth-Hoodoo do receive some pay based on the number of calls attended. The challenge to fill the boots of retiring firefighters, however, is still the same. The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs 2022 census report revealed that some 15,000 firefighter positions are vacant across Canada, a number that makes people wonder what the future holds for rural firefighting. As for Wakaw, Cudworth, and the surrounding rural areas, the RM of Hoodoo together with the towns, is taking steps to ensure they are providing the best possible service to those who depend on them.