Canadian Firefighter Magazine

New fire chief appointed to Burk’s Falls and District Fire Department

By Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget   

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Apr. 25, 2024, Burk’s Falls, Ont. – Joe Readman has been spending April settling into his position as the new fire chief of the Burk’s Falls and District Fire Department.

Readman officially took over on April 2, a day after former fire chief Dave McNay retired.

At 36, Readman has already spent half his life in firefighting service.

Born and raised in nearby Gravenhurst, the day he turned 18, Readman submitted his application to join the Gravenhurst Fire Department (GFD) in 2006.


It shouldn’t come as a surprise that he joined a firefighting service considering his dad was a captain and fire prevention officer and his two older brothers were all part of the GFD.

Readman spent 10 years as a volunteer firefighter in Gravenhurst before joining the Burk’s Falls fire department in 2016.

He rose through the ranks while in Burk’s Falls becoming a captain a year after joining and then the deputy fire chief in 2018 and also the department’s fire prevention officer.

Like many small fire departments in northern Ontario and rural communities, most of the firefighting positions are filled by volunteers.

Burk’s Falls is no different.

The only paid full-time positions are fire chief and fire prevention officer.

During 2020 Readman became Magnetawan’s fire chief and for one year – there was an overlap between his position in Burk’s Falls and Magnetawan.

Readman gave up the fire chief’s position in Magnetawan later in 2022 because of family commitments but remained the department’s deputy.

“But the kids are older and ready to start school,” Readman said, adding the timing coincided with McNay retiring. “I applied and was fortunate enough to get the job.”

With 16 volunteers Readman acknowledges he’d like to increase the number of recruits.

Ideally, he’d like to outfit the local fire department with 25 to 30 volunteers.

“But it’s hard to get people interested,” he said.

Readman says it’s not just Burk’’s Falls that’s having an issue recruiting and retaining its volunteers.

He says many departments across Ontario face this problem, and it’s easily one of their hardest challenges, if not the toughest.

Readman believes at the root of the problem are the mandated minimum level of training requirements the Province of Ontario introduced several years ago which apply to volunteer and full-time firefighters.

“It’s a big-time commitment, especially during the first two to three years,” he said.

“Once you’re hired, you have 36 months to become fully certified to the level you want to be at.  So that’s going to eat up a lot of weekends to get there.”

Readman says the challenge for the volunteer firefighters locally and beyond is many of them have families and work full-time elsewhere, so it becomes a juggling act to balance all the expectations.

However, to help ease the local recruitment situation, Readman has been talking to young people who are thinking of pursuing a career as professional firefighters.

“I tell them you can graduate high school and go to college for two years and get a certification,” he said.

“But that could cost you $20,000 to $30,000. Or you can join a volunteer fire department, put in a little extra time, and we’ll give you the same certification at the end of those two or three years. And you’re not $20,000 or $30,000 behind.”

Readman says even if the individual leaves the local fire department after three years to pursue full-time firefighting in a city, the small department got the services of that volunteer at least for a period of time.

Readman says the local retention rate appears to have stabilized at the current level, and he’s hopeful that it at least remains the status quo.

But he believes the number of recruits could rise once a much-anticipated new fire hall is built.

Burk’s Falls, Armour and Ryerson share fire services and all three municipal councils are working on having a new hall built by perhaps 2026.

“That new fire hall will be a big occasion,” Readman said.

The new building will easily be able to accommodate all the present equipment with excess storage capacity.

At this time the department has a pumper tanker which serves as the lead pumper, a tanker that brings water to the fires, a 50-foot aerial truck and two pick-up trucks, one which is used for rescues and the other for prevention services.

At this time, Readman says there are no plans to add further equipment.

Readman says if recruitment and retention are the toughest challenges any department faces, public education in fire prevention is the very rewarding part of the service.

Readman says the local department has a great working relationship with Land of Lakes Public School and a couple of cottage association groups.

He says the department educates them about fire prevention and what to do in a fire emergency and adds the firefighters are always willing to connect with more people and talk about fire safety.

“Education is the first line of defense,” he said. “If we can prevent the fire from happening then that 911 call never gets made.”

Readman says when it comes to the kids, what they learn about fire safety is something they carry into adulthood.

Readman says as the new fire chief he only plans on making very minor changes.

As the department’s former deputy chief, Readman says he already has a working relationship with the volunteers.

Although Readman’s work is full-time, it’s a split position where he serves as the Burk’s Falls fire chief three days of the week, and for the other two days, he is the fire chief of McMurrich Monteith.

The Burk’s Falls Fire Department performs exterior and interior attacks and also carries out ice and water rescues in still waters but not swift-flowing waters.

Readman says to provide the latter service would require much more training and different equipment.

Readman says anyone thinking of becoming a volunteer firefighter shouldn’t hesitate.

“There is always a role for somebody,” he said.

“And there is a huge reward because you’re giving back to the community, and you’re keeping it safe. You’re also learning skills that will stay with you whether you stay in a fire service or not.  You won’t regret it.”

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