Canadian Firefighter Magazine

A family affair

By Mitchell Sherrin   

Features Hot Topics Opinion

With volunteer recruitment and retention a challenge for many Canadian fire departments, Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) in British Columbia has created a training model that works so well families of volunteer firefighters plan their summer vacations around it.

With volunteer recruitment and retention a challenge for many Canadian fire departments, Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue (SSIFR) in British Columbia has created a training model that works so well families of volunteer firefighters plan their summer vacations around it.

The annual July training weekend caters to families and provides opportunities for social networking among volunteer firefighters, says SSIFR Deputy Chief Arjuna George.

A firefighter performs a self rescue through a RIT disentanglement prop during the annual “weekend in paradise” training weekend hosted by Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue.
Photo by Deputy Chief Arjuna George

“In the world of the fire service, networking and fire training are the foundation to volunteer firefighter retention,” George says. “The training weekend allows the volunteer firefighters to remain on Salt Spring Island with their families while at the same time receiving quality training. The opportunity to network with 125 firefighters in one spot is a rare thing, and if we can provide this opportunity, volunteer retention will be strengthened.”


Salt Spring, a rural community of 10,000 residents nestled in the Gulf Islands between Vancouver and Victoria, B.C., enjoys a reputation as a popular getaway. The summertime population on the island triples with visitors who swarm to the idyllic, pastoral landscape with a vigorous artsy culture and numerous recreational opportunities.

Building on the island reputation as a tourism destination, the SSIFR Regional Training Conference has been dubbed training in paradise and has become the largest training conference in B.C. over the last eight years. In 2009 and 2010, 125 firefighters from 29 departments participated in one of 10 courses at the four-day event.

The social emphasis of the Salt Spring training weekend evolved after SSIFR members attended other conferences and found them lacking a few key elements, George said.

“We received great training but never once had the opportunity to network or brainstorm with other firefighters.”

SSIFR held its own training weekend the following year, along with special evening events, including a massive barbeque featuring live entertainment, to allow the firefighters to interact and learn from each other, he said.

“Every department does things a little different. It’s always a great opportunity to be able to learn what other departments do and how we can improve ourselves on Salt Spring.”

Local and visiting firefighters during a training evolution for a B.C. firefighter evaluation certification course at the annual – and very popular – Salt Spring Island Fire Rescue training weekend.
Photo by Deputy Chief Arjuna George


And the family oriented atmosphere allows student firefighters to combine training and a summer camping vacation with their families, he said.

“For a firefighter to be able to come to Salt Spring, take a course while still not having to leave their family at home is a real bonus that is a big factor in the success of the event.”

While firefighters are learning the ropes, their spouses and children have a chance to wander through the island village of Ganges and take in the attractions Salt Spring offers, he said. A partners’ program provides additional entertainment for families with activities such as farm visits, wine tasting, boating opportunities and pool-side gatherings.

Even the instructors are fans of the SSIFR approach to training. Surrey Fire Service Capt. Reo Jerome has taught courses for the Justice Institute of B.C. on Salt Spring since the conference started in 2004.

“From the whacky golf tournament on the Thursday evening to the meet and greet on the Friday, to the awesome family barbeque dinner with prizes, entertainment and poker tourney, to the surprise event for the younger kids and families on the Sunday – this weekend is one great social family vacation.”

But the island training weekend doesn’t just involve fun and games. Each year SSIFR offers a selection of eight to 10 certified courses through JIBC that meet rigorous NFPA training standards.

“The training we receive from the JIBC during the SSIFR training weekend is important and essential to keeping our firefighters abreast of new techniques, technology, and hands-on practice with expert instructors,” George said.
Many of the courses are accredited internationally and they are delivered by the “gurus of the fire service,” he said.

And SSIFR has gained recognition as a leader among fire departments in the region for its commitment to high-quality training. Representatives from the Office of the Fire Commissioner have attended the event since 2006. Indeed, when B.C. Fire Commissioner Rebecca Denlinger attended in 2008 she rolled up her sleeves and served local crab to guests at the barbeque.

Metchosin Fire Chief Stephanie Dunlop noted that the combination of certified training and social activities makes the SSIFR training conference a big draw for her membership.

“We have been attending the Salt Spring training weekend since its inception,” said Dunlop. “We try to send eight to 12 firefighters to the various courses every year. It’s a great opportunity for training on so many levels: It’s low cost due to minimal travel expenses; it’s fun; and it’s well organized – which encourages the families to be involved. The courses are varied and certified so it’s time well spent.

“The camping and localized entertainment encourages bonding among firefighters within our own department, not to mention getting to meet and interact with so many other firefighters and their families,” she said. “It’s definitely considered a perk within our department to attend this training.”

Hope Fire Chief Tom DeSorcy agrees that the SSIFR training weekend serves his firefighters by taking care of their families and that’s why they’ve attended every year since the first conference in 2004.

“A volunteer department asks a lot of its members so to take them away for a weekend of training where their families can come along and enjoy the hospitality of the fire department and the island only makes it that much more attractive a training option for us,” DeSorcy says.

Even though Hope is more than five hours away from Salt Spring by car and ferry, the event has become so popular within DeSorcy’s department that he can’t send everyone who’d like to attend each year.

“There is a waiting list each year, believe me,” he said.

Family members of firefighters also give rave reviews of the event.

“Our summer begins with the annual pilgrimage to Salt Spring Island,” said Rachel Zubek, who has attended the training conference with her husband, Gary, from Mill Bay for the past five years.

“For my husband that means top-notch training opportunities with the family in tow. SSIFR puts on a fabulous training weekend for the whole family. While the spouses are honing their fire-rescue skills, family members are treated to barbecues, beaches and outings such as wine tours, sampling cheese at local specialty farms and hikes with amazing picnic lunches as reward,” Zubek said.

As an RCMP community policing co-ordinator, Zubek is already part of the emergency services family but she appreciates the extra details SSIFR adds to include families at the training event.

The 2010 conference included fire strategies and tactics, hazmat emergency response, confined space rescue, rapid intervention teams, water tender operations, fire operations in the wildland urban interface, basic forestry fire suppression and two International Fire Service Accreditation Congress certified courses that comprise part of the JIBC fire officer program.

Over the years, the SSIFR conference has offered courses in areas such as technical high angle rope rescue, vehicle extrication, fire investigation and fire service instruction.

Departments wanting more details about the family friendly training weekend model can visit or Salt Spring Island Fire Training Weekend Info Centre on Facebook.

Mitchell Sherrin has seven years’ experience in the fire service and is a career firefighter with SSIFR.

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