Volunteer fire chiefs face burnout

Long hours preparing equipment and lugging around a radio for no pay has one community fire chief frustrated.

Long hours preparing equipment and lugging around a radio for no pay has one community fire chief frustrated.

Then, last month, the government asked those volunteers to head the flood mitigation at Marsh Lake without pay.

That was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for fire chief Juergen Willms.

“How much more do you guys want us to do?” he said.

He refused the duty as a fire chief, but has pitched in to help with sandbagging as a Marsh Lake resident.

Willms’ concerns came a week after “frustrated” volunteer ambulance attendants in Watson Lake and Dawson City walked off the job en masse, tired of working long hours for little pay.

Like volunteer ambulance attendants, firefighters in Marsh Lake are paid only for the time they spend responding to calls.

“All the other times that we spend to keep up the state of readiness, stay trained and ensure maintenance of everything, which is the majority of the time, are completely unpaid,” said Willms on Tuesday.

Many of the volunteers at the Marsh Lake bay are qualified to respond to both fire and medical emergencies.

To become a full member of the team, (a full member is able to respond to both fire and ambulance calls), volunteers must complete a minimum of 130 hours of firefighting training and a minimum of 90 hours of emergency medical responder training.

On top of keeping training up to date, Willms attends regular meetings, and must complete regular maintenance on the fire hall, its vehicles and equipment.

“It eats my time up like there’s no tomorrow,” he said.

Willms logs 10 to 20 hours of unpaid work each week, he said.

Last year, the community’s 12 volunteers responded to 60 emergency calls.

Recently, he’s lost volunteers and has had trouble finding new recruits to replace them.

“It’s a huge time commitment,” he said.

“Before we can let you play with us, to do fire and medical, you have to do a 220-hour course that just covers the basics.

“And I will stick the radio in your pocket 24-7 all year and you’d be called in at any time of the day or night.”

Liability issues are also pushing new volunteers away from duty, said Willms.

“If I don’t keep my maintenance up and something happens to one of my people I’d be liable,” said Willms.

“We’re looking for more support from the government and also fairer treatment,” he said.

He’s asking for a paid employee to cover maintenance and paperwork for the Southern Lakes fire halls.

“We’re hoping the government will work with us and not just brush it off,” he said.

Willms’ concerns about volunteer burnout did not surprise Association of Yukon Fire Chiefs president Jim Regimbal.

“The government will have to address those issues with the volunteers, firefighters and EMO co-ordinators that are expected to volunteer a lot of hours and not get compensated,” he said.

“We don’t want to be in a position where fire chiefs are walking away,”

There will be a Yukon fire chiefs’ annual conference in Dawson in late August. There, the territory’s 17 chiefs will discuss the concerns.

“Even prior to the ambulance issue, that was on the agenda to discuss.”

Community Services Minister Glenn Hart refused an interview.