Many helmets worn
The Sault Star

WAWA — When someone thinks of volunteer fire departments, he or she tends to think about putting out fires — but these days, it’s much more than that.

Wawa fire Chief Kevin Sabourin recently discussed the challenges facing the Wawa Volunteer Fire Department.

“Before, it used to be that fire suppression was the most important thing – when fires occurred, they needed people to respond to them,” Sabourin told The Sault Star. “Nowadays, it is more public education and fire prevention, so we try to promote that more.”

Sabourin said recruiting new firefighters is always a challenge for volunteer departments.

The Wawa department is currently looking for three new recruits to ensure a complement of 23.

“We want to replace them to keep our numbers up so we have enough personnel to respond to fires at any time during the day and night,” said Sabourin.

“Usually, with volunteer fire departments, you have regular turnover of individuals moving on in their life or their life situation changes or job wise, so we’re always in the process of trying to recruit or have a list of recruits that we can ask to come on,” he said, adding that five individuals were hired at the last recruitment two years ago.

Sabourin said there is no difference between volunteer and career firefighters.

“We are all trained the same way and we all do the same thing when we get to a fire,” he added.

The department must follow National Fire Protection Association regulations and include up to 80 hours of training.

“We train on our own time so it will take us a lot longer to train,” said Sabourin. “It’s my responsibility to make sure they’re safe when they do this job. You have to train to do it.”

While most training is done in-house, Sabourin said if volunteers are willing, they are sent out of town for specialized courses, such as ice-water rescue and hazardous materials training.

“It’s getting hard for volunteers because they’re treating it like a full time job. Individuals are different now, they have different priorities so trying to get somebody who’s willing to commit to this is very hard,” said Sabourin, adding that people today are more committed to their families and careers.

“We are looking for someone in fairly good shape, willing to commit time to training, responding, and doing public education. It’s not something that you can come and go when you want — we expect a dedication that you’re going to show up when we need you.”

“There will always be fires or motor vehicle accidents or some type of incident that they require firefighters to respond to, so we still have to do our due diligence in getting a complement of firefighters to respond because there’s always going to be an emergency that needs to be responded to. The more volunteers that we can have on our list, gives us a better chance of responding to any incident at any time.”

The fire chief said all 23 volunteers never respond to a call. “The average turnout is 15 personnel to any call.”

Sabourin said that since Algoma Ore Division closed in 1998, there are more firefighters working out of town versus in town.

“We have individuals that work in the gold mines located out of town, so what we try to do is accommodate,” said Sabourin, explaining that eight personnel may work at the mines but four will be on and four will be off.

“We still have that coverage,” he added. “It’s working out for us and things seem to be going well.”

Sabourin said other small volunteer fire departments struggle because their firefighters have daytime jobs, so day response times are low.

“Fortunately for Wawa, we have a good mix of individuals, so we get good response whether it’s daytime or nighttime,” he added.

Another issue for volunteer fire departments is the age of volunteers.

“They’re not supposed to be over 60, but most volunteer fire departments do because they’re the only ones around,” Sabourin said.

Until recently, even the role of fire chief was a volunteer position in Wawa. New Ontario Fire Marshal Emergency Management regulations call for more responsibilities downloaded to departments in terms of availability and paperwork.

Sabourin, fire chief since 2008, had the position when it became full time in October 2017 when the former chief building official retired and the municipality decided to combine three positions into one.

His official title is assistant director protective services, which includes fire chief, chief building inspector and bylaw enforcement.

Sabourin said he joined the department 28 years ago because he wanted to help people.

“I wanted to provide a service to the community because I grew up here and I wanted to give back to the community that I live in,” he said.

Sabourin said money has never been a motivating factor. Volunteers are paid by honorarium, which they receive once a year as a result of an agreement between the municipality and the firefighters association. Sabourin said the honorarium is divided up by the volunteers’ attendance to calls.

There can be anywhere from three to eight incidents a month depending on highway calls.

“There are very few calls in town and they are usually miscellaneous or false alarms,” Sabourin said. “The majority are motor vehicle accidents.”

The most challenging part of the job, he said, is dealing with motor vehicle accidents and victims.

“It’s not just the ones that are hurt but the ones that perish that we have to deal with,” he added.

Sabourin said volunteers have been known to suffer from PTSD because of dealing with such situations.

“We have had individuals resign because of that,” Sabourin said.

<back to Headlines