Wembley Fire Chief Matthew Smith stops for a photo at the Wembley Fire Department in Wembley, Alta. on Wednesday, Feb. 23, 2022. The Wembley Fire Department saw an increase of calls in 2021 while also seeing a decline in volunteers. In 2021 the fire department responded to 320 calls, while in 2020 they responded to 232 calls, and 211 in 2019. (Photo by Jesse Boily)

By Jesse Boily, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The Wembley Fire Department saw its busiest year yet in 2021, responding to 320 calls while seeing a decline in volunteers.

“We are trending in an unfavourable direction right now with retention and recruitment of volunteers,” said Matthew Smith, Wembley fire chief.

The Wembley firefighters responded to 232 calls in 2020, 211 in 2019, and 242 in 2018.

He said that between 2017 and 2020, he had up to 35 volunteers, and now that number sits closer to the high 20s.

The pandemic took its toll on volunteers’ ability to help as well.

Smith explained that volunteer’s employers didn’t want people taking the risk of going out to medical calls and having the trouble of exposure to COVID and then having them at risk of being away for isolation.

The beginning of the pandemic did not help with the retention of volunteers either when call volume dropped, and new procedures and policies needed to be made as they made precautions for COVID.

Another reason for the decline in numbers is volunteers moving from the volunteer department for paid full-time positions in fire departments, police or EMS.

“People come here, and they volunteer because we’re busy,” said Smith.

Smith would like to see more incentives for people.

Currently, the federal government allows volunteer firefighters to claim $3,000 if they have completed at least 200 hours of eligible volunteer firefighting services, but Smith would like to see some incentives from the Town of Wembley.

He said that discussions with council are ongoing, but he would like to see something where maybe volunteer firefighters can receive a break on property taxes.

“Volunteerism is a dying art, and it’s not financially feasible to do full-time staffing all the time, so we have to count on our volunteers,” said Smith.

Other towns in the South Peace face similar issues in their volunteer firefighter memberships.

The Town of Sexsmith recently decided to fire a full-time firefighter position to help with response times.

The volunteers at the Wembley Fire Department are a mixture of people, from young people who are just leaving fire school looking for experience, recent high school graduates to middle-aged individuals who want to help their community.

The department doesn’t require any previous firefighting experience as they will train volunteers, but some people may have transferable skills that become an asset to the department, such as having a Class 3 license and experience driving commercial vehicles.

“Anybody who doesn’t feel that they’re there physically or mentally up to the job of doing the physical firefighting, we also have our sister organization which is the fire association, and that’s where we do a lot of our fundraising and community events,” said Smith.

About 75 per cent of the association is comprised of operational members, so meetings can get cut short if a call happens during them; Smith says he would like to see more people in the community involved in the association.

The pandemic has slowed down donations coming into the fire department. With fewer donations coming in from industry and fewer billable incidents, the department is working on tight budgets.

The 39 per cent increase in calls did not come with a 39 per cent increase in budget, says Smith.

“We’re trying to do twice as much with half as much.”

Still, the busy year for the Wembley Fire Department has brought the firefighters closer together.

Time together is plentiful, says Smith: “You’re doing 320 calls — that’s almost every day —  and then on top of that you take our weekly training, weekend and our social events.”

This item is reprinted with permission from Town & Country News, Wembly, Alberta.

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