The Interlakes Volunteer Fire Department announced last week it has discontinued its First Responder Program because of a lack of volunteers, with the Forest Grove fire hall potentially following suit.
The news from the two departments comes shortly after the Cariboo Regional District released a video calling for more volunteers to meet a “critical need” across the region.
The CRD, which oversees 14 volunteer fire departments, has seen a decline in the number of volunteers due to members growing older, retiring and leaving town, with no one to replace them. Some halls also lost volunteer members who were unable or unwilling to get vaccinations during the pandemic.
In February this year, the regional district released numbers showing a drop in firefighters on the active roster- from 374 to 285 following the vaccination mandate.
“Without a steady stream of new volunteer recruits, our ‘volunteer fire department’ is not sustainable,” the Interlakes Volunteer Fire Department said in a statement.
First responders are volunteers trained to medically assist people prior to an ambulance arriving. IVFD had started the program at the community’s request but has only six or seven volunteers to manage an increasingly high call rate. About 88 per cent of all calls IVFD receives are medical. Many first responders are also firefighters who respond to motor vehicle incidents.
“This program has been struggling to get funding and volunteers to keep it running for quite some time,” IVFD stated in the release.
The discontinuation of the program means an ambulance will now be first on scene, and not the fire department, which will likely mean longer response times.
Thalia Cristina, who lives in the Interlakes area, said the news “is scary. It takes at least 40 minutes for an ambulance to get to our area from 100 Mile.”
Forest Grove Volunteer Fire Department Chief Michelle Meeker said the First Responder Program is crucial for rural areas, especially with the state of the ambulance service.
She noted it takes considerable time for ambulances to travel from 100 Mile House to Forest Grove/Canim Lake. One call tied her members up for two hours, she said, because thehad to wait for an ambulance to come from Clinton. Other times, they had to wait for ambulances from Barriere or Ashcroft.
She worries one of her halls will be shut down because they don’t have enough volunteers. Insurance requires a certain number of firefighters to respond within a certain period of time.
Her department right now only has what she called “the dedicated six,” most of them volunteers who moved to the area from the Lower Mainland and stepped up to help. If half of them are sick or at work, the hall won’t have enough people to respond when a call comes in.
Meeker points out that volunteers do not have to don turnout gear and respond to fire calls. “Not at all. If you want to do first responder stuff – great. Sign up and do that,” she said.
Gerald Pinchbeck, manager of communications for the CRD, said the firefighter video was created to help draw more volunteers.
“We’re looking for new members just to make sure fire protection services can continue to be delivered in a sustainable way going forward.”
The CRD video, featuring fire chiefs from Forest Grove, 150 Mile and Kersley volunteer fire departments, urges volunteers to join their local fire halls to “be the difference to your community.
“Our firefighters pull together not only to support their communities – they also support each other, through good times and tough times,” a CRD media release states. “Being a firefighter means joining a family of safety professionals.”
Although her department was featured in the CRD video, Meeker said she is not optimistic it will lead to an influx of new blood in her department.
“Personally, I do not think it is going to have much of an effect. I really don’t,” she said. “We get people coming in, they’ll take the paperwork, they’ll fill out the stuff, they get sized for the stuff, they’re all gung ho and they make it two to three practices and they disappear.”
She said if the CRD lifted the COVID mandates from the departments, it would help encourage new members but only to a degree.
Meeker also said training has become an issue, as the CRD is requiring firefighters to undertake more stringent testing through the College of the Rockies rather than in-house. Many older members in her department and Interlakes say they may leave as a result.