Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Volunteer firefighter recruits elusive

By Carl Clutchey, Local Journalism Initiative reporter, The Chronicle-Journal   

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Apr. 11, 2024, Thunder Bay, Ont. – As recruitment of volunteer firefighters remains a major focus, O’Connor Township’s new fire chief says the department is gearing up for a spate of grass fires if relief from drought-like conditions is short-lived.

“It could be a busy year, given the lack of snow and rainfall we had (this winter),” Greg Biloski said on Tuesday.

Biloski, who has spent 15 years as a volunteer firefighter with O’Connor’s department, was appointed as new chief on March 16.

He takes over from long-time veteran Henry Mattas, who was involved in firefighting for nearly half a century.


O’Connor has only one fire hall, located on Highway 595. It’s equipped with a pumper truck, water tanker, rescue van and side-by-side all-terrain vehicle.

Currently, 17 volunteers are on the department’s roster of firefighters, but only a fraction are available at any given time to respond to emergencies.

At rural fire scenes, it’s not unusual for pumpers to run out of water in the absence of municipal fire hydrants. Once a tanker has also been depleted, it’s dispatched to a filling depot.

If a depot is too far away from the scene, water is sometimes pumped from creeks and ponds — the reality of rural firefighting, Biloski noted.

Water can also be brought in from other rural fire departments under mutual-aid agreements.

So far this year, there haven’t been any house fires in O’Connor. As in previous years, Biloski said he expects most calls for services to involve medical emergencies since many township residents live far from ambulance stations.

“We get dispatched at the same time, so we can provide help until paramedics arrive,” Biloski said.

When Mattas was chief, he noted the ongoing struggle by O’Connor and neighbouring rural fire departments to shore up their volunteer roster.

Biloski said that while those efforts will continue, recruitment obstacles remain. The main one, Biloski said, is finding people who are prepared to make the considerable time commitment. Ongoing training requirements take recruits and veterans alike away from their work and families.

Initial training takes about a year. That includes becoming used to wearing protective equipment and gear, which is heavy and often hot.

And the equipment is expensive, Biloski noted.

“You don’t want to order it for somebody who might come out only a few times, and then you never see them again,” he said.

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