Helicopter rescue is on hold as volunteer fire crew shortages prevent response to emergencies

TORONTO — Volunteers with the Greater Essex County Volunteer Fire Service are facing delays in recruiting for their designated station that could affect time for responding to emergency calls, prompting concerns over the lack of available staffing for the fire department in some areas.

The local firefighters’ union is urging the Service area of the Greater Essex County Fire and Emergency Services Board to come up with a proposal to help streamline the selection process, citing the potential delay for firefighters to respond to emergencies.

“Some guys are not going to get the positions available to them,” said Brent Tyler, the president of the local firefighters’ union. “We want to get the immediate staffing in place.”

The central Essex County firefighting service, which covers the southwestern and eastern portions of the county as well as parts of Hamilton and Cornwall, had about 1,700 firefighters on staff as of Dec. 31, 2018, according to board information.

About 23 per cent of those positions were designated as volunteer roles, which requires up to 160 hours of volunteer training.

But while the majority of firefighters in the area are volunteers, the division’s fire station in Hamilton Township, which has a designated station, can only hold about 100 trained volunteers. The staff at a Hamilton station that does not have a designated station is roughly the same, said board chair Sean Bouchard.

It has been difficult to recruit for certain volunteers positions and has caused delays in providing on-the-job training, Bouchard said.

“We have to identify the specific units that we don’t have volunteer stations on and then recruit, train, and rescript those positions,” he said. “Then we get down to the handfuls. And then there are already enough volunteers to cover both stations.”

Bouchard said union officials have informed the board about the delays and the board’s staff is looking at a possible solution.

“We’re at the most preliminary stages of our discussions,” he said. “We have not sent any propositions to the union for what we’re proposing to them.”

If approved, Bouchard said, the service may offer training options within the division to meet staffing needs. He said he expects the matter to come up before the board at its March 16 meeting.

Whether the cuts will impact response times is yet to be seen, Tyler said. The Greater Essex County Fire Service responded to nearly 37,000 emergency calls last year.

The Greater Essex County Volunteer Fire Service operates under the regional Fire Service Board of which it is a part, which oversees all fire services across the two fire districts.

The Service area has had other issues as well. It has investigated a series of high-profile fires, including the loss of a dilapidated warehouse on Ottawa Street in Welland in June and a manufactured home on Warrendale Avenue in Burlington in October.

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