The role of the volunteer firefighter has changed over the years. As Fire Chief Ted Dillon puts it, “We no longer put the wet stuff on the red stuff.”
It is true, a volunteer firefighter must assist in many other scenarios; extrication at an accident, emergency assists and lifts, and other emergency response areas.
Call volumes have increased in such a manner that Dillon feels it has almost become a second job, and as society has become more mobile and transient, so has the number of people who volunteer their time. The 26-member fire department is almost a perfect number for Dillon. “Ideally, 30 is a number we’d like to get too.”
He feels the challenge any fire department faces is recruiting volunteers from the same pool that minor sports teams and other organizations are recruiting from. Another challenge is having to take a call and an employer understanding the need.
“The 20- and 30-year member is no longer there,” stated Dillon.
As of July 31, the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) has attended 108 calls. Of those calls 18 were fire-related, and 19 were grass fires; compared to 13 fire calls and 10 grass fire calls for July 2011, respectively.
The 106-year-old fire department has taken the experience and put it to best use though.
“We’ve had to learn how to work with what we’ve got,” said Dillon.
Ponoka’s volunteer firefighters also had to deal with 28 vehicle accidents up to July, down from 48 for the same period last year. But being an emergency responder also means dealing with alarm calls. The PFD handled 24 alarms where there was no fire; that’s an increase of 15 calls from 2011.
Dillon’s hope is to increase the number of volunteer firefighters in the department and Ponoka has four new firefighters, two recruited in September. Training starts right away for new recruits.
“When you’re brand new first of all, adrenaline’s taken over,” he explained.
He gives them a combination of courses and hands-on experience. “Soon we’ll be doing some smoke training.”
“Just like they’re going into a real fire,” said fire prevention co-ordinator Donna Noble. Using artificial smoke, new firefighters will have to navigate a house while in gear. They can keep track of trainees using an accountability system that monitors the rate of breathing and air intake.
The safety benefits of a system such as this allows Dillon to monitor progress, if a firefighter becomes immobile they will know.
“I’ve always said you can’t be scared of fire, but you have to have a healthy respect for it,” stated Dillon.
Among the tools the department uses is a 1994 Chevy rescue truck. Despite its age, the truck has relatively low miles, but as the PFD’s needs become greater — especially along the Highway 2 corridor — so does the need for equipment.
The department has been fundraising for the last three years for a newer and larger rescue truck. “We’ve outgrown our present tuck.”
Among the new features will be a trailer hitch, a more powerful engine and scene lighting. Dillon said the department is on track for fundraising and ordering the new truck.
It will also store equipment such as the Jaws of Life, ropes and ice water rescue suits.
Ponoka is among 435 fire departments in Alberta, 422 of which are volunteer. There are also 44 First Nations fire departments with 10 of those served by municipal fire departments.