When fire breaks out in most communities, firefighters respond in minutes. In Zeballos, a village on Vancouver Island’s West Coast, the closest help would come from Port McNeill, at least one hour away.
In May, the village council closed its volunteer fire department because there were too few trained firefighters.
The decision raised all sorts of practical questions for the community.
Residents were advised by the village to “look at their own policies of insurance to decide whether they need to report the change to their insurer.”
And what about calling 911 for a fire? “Yes, dispatch service will still have a protocol in place. There will currently be no response to a fire call out,” it explained.
It was clearly an unusual and extreme move, but the lack of firefighting volunteers is actually a problem faced by many communities across the province.
In most of B.C.’s villages and smaller cities, “volunteer paid-on-call staff are the backbone of fire departments,” says Ernie Polsom, co-owner of FireWise Consulting, hired by Zeballos to get its fire department back on track.
But, he said, it’s a tough job. “Firefighting is not like volunteering for the Lions Club or Rotary,” Polsom told West Coast Now. People have to be fit, capable, have a mindset for emergency services, sign on for ongoing training, and be “available 24 hours a day, spending a large portion of their lives ready to drop everything and run at a moment’s notice.”
“The segment of society able to (volunteer) is shrinking,” noted Polsom, and volunteer fire departments everywhere are now stretched thin “because the pandemic was brutal.”
“The fear of taking the disease home from accidental exposure on call was a big deal,” said Polsom. “And all of the social aspects, an important part of being a volunteer firefighter, were gone.”
In Zeballos, 18 people have now signed up for firefighting training. They came forward after residents were shocked to realize “we no longer had a fire department,” Chief Administrative Officer Pete Nelson-Smith told West Coast Now.
The new volunteers, from Zeballos and nearby Ehattesaht Chinehkint First Nation and Nuchatlaht First Nation, will start boot camp on Aug. 20th.
Boot camp for the new firefighters in Zeballos is the first step in a long training process, said Polsom. “They need to take hundreds of hours of initial training in fire suppression, rescue, and motor vehicle rescue.”
They may, eventually, be required to also take paramedic training, he said, “as the health system is under great pressure… and in many communities, the only people available are the fire guys.”
Nelson-Smith said, to his knowledge, no area residents have needed a fire response since the department closed in May. The village has continued fire prevention efforts, from inspections of public buildings to encouraging residents to have working smoke alarms in homes.
Nobody yet knows how long training for the new recruits, and approval by the province, will take. A notice by the village council said a limited fire department return to service may be possible after boot camp.