In a very detailed annual report to Council, Fire Chief John Okum, Director of Emergency & Protective Services for North Grenville, discussed a potentially serious issue with regard to recruiting for the mostly-volunteer fire service in the municipality. The Service has four full-time employees and 42 part-time volunteer fire fighters, and the growing level of service and types of service provided by the department is putting strain on the men and women who take time out of their daily lives to serve.
There are two Fire Stations, one in Oxford Mills with 15 personnel, and the main Station in Kemptville, where the Fire Chief, Deputy Chief, Fire Prevention Officer, and an Administrative Assistant are based, along with 25 volunteers. Two people resigned from the Service over the past year. As a result, the Fire Service lost a combined 10 years of experience. This reflects a continuing trend, as the Report noted that in 2020, the accumulative years of service compared to those of 2012 demonstrate the collective loss of 140 years’ experience. A group of 13 completed their training in 2020 and they make up 31% of the personnel in the Fire Service.
The difficulty in securing recruits is largely attributed to the changes in the general society of North Grenville and Ontario. Men and women may have much less time to volunteer now than in previous times, due to work and family commitments, as well as the extra demands the Service makes because of increased activity in call-outs, in training, public education, fire prevention, and taking part in public events.
And the North Grenville Fire Service is busy every day. In 2020, there were 309 emergency call-outs, as well as attendance at events such as drive-by celebrations of birthdays and anniversaries. The nature of call-outs may be surprising to many. Attendance at fires accounted for only 6% of call-outs, while 20% were medical assist calls. The Report noted an interesting change in the number of calls involving fires. In 2016, that number was 84, compared with just 16 in 2020. “Fire” incidents are actual fire conditions that occurred which either required the fire department to extinguish, was extinguished by another party, or self-extinguished. There are also “Pre-fire” call-outs, which are occurrences such as a pot left on a stove-top that smoldered and resulted in smoke, but no fire condition. These calls have increased in number, with 17 incidents in 2016 and 42 in 2020.
COVID-19 had an impact on all aspects of the Fire Service in 2020. Personnel had to be trained in new protocols, general training and public educational programs were interrupted. Equipment, particularly Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, was used more, but available less, owing to demand from the wider society because of the pandemic. And, even more so than with the general population, there was an increase in stress levels to deal with.
Following Chief Okum’s report to Council, he was asked by Councillor John Barclay if there was any calculation of just when North Grenville might need to move from its volunteer-based fire service to a full-time employee one. At that point, Mayor Peckford interrupted to state that the United Counties were looking into the matter on a counties level and she expected there would be some news on that shortly. It came as a surprise to the rest of Council that this discussion has been taking place.
Chief Okum’s Annual Report for 2020 came immediately after First Responders Day on May 1, when Ontario recognizes workers on the front line, including police officers, firefighters, military personnel, paramedics, dispatchers, nurses, doctors and emergency personnel. His Report is included in the Agenda package for the Council meeting on May 5, and can be accessed on the Municipality’s web site.
Why would discussions at county council come as a surprise to any of the councillors? Minutes of county council meetings are comprehensive (or used to be) and reflect discussions. Up to each councilor if they bother to stay informed or not.