EGAN: Ottawa Fire Department seeks volunteer firefighters — ‘a mom, dad, farmer, or contractor’ — to save themselves

The agency will embark on one of its most ambitious recruiting efforts this week to fill the gaps left by the usual retirements and departures, as well as an unusual amount of relocations caused by the pandemic.

Article content

Ottawa has one of the most unusual fire departments in North America — well over a third of its 1,500 firefighters are “volunteers.”

Advertisement 2

Article content

If you look at a map, these 500 or so “non-career” employees account for about 80 percent of the council’s landmass — and not a paycheck.

On a daily basis, this means that when a barn near Sarsfield or North Gower is on fire, or a car overturns in Kinburn, beepers go off on the belts or bedside tables of electricians, plumbers, farmers or shop owners, turning them towards the nearest station or jump directly into the “bunker” gear stored in their vehicles.

Unlike in the city, it is a system in which neighbors literally save each other.

This is the result of an amalgamation, when a number of mainly rural jurisdictions – from Cumberland to West Carleton, all with mostly volunteer hose holders – joined the established urban divisions (Ottawa, Gloucester, Nepean, Kanata) in 2001 to provide one giant service. to shape.

Advertisement 3

Article content

It’s a hybrid or ‘compound’ system with its own problems – one of which is recruitment.

Ottawa Fire Services embarks this week on one of its most ambitious recruiting efforts to fill the gaps created by the usual retirements and departures, as well as an unusual amount of relocations caused by the pandemic.

About 21,000 rural households will receive a recruitment postcard in the mail and notices will appear on fire trucks, signboards and station hall doors in rural areas.

“Ottawa hasn’t had a volunteer recruiting campaign since I volunteered, not at this level,” said Larry Roy, 51, Eastern Sector Chief, who started volunteering in 2002.

“We are looking for the mothers and fathers, the farmers, the contractors,” he said. “The people have invested in their community.”

Advertisement 4

Article content

People like Anthony Vanmunsteren, 37, a dairy farmer near Sarsfield who has four children with wife Lorraine, yet has been a volunteer for 18 years. He is now a captain at Navan station, which in 2021 answered about 140 calls, of which he attended about 90 himself.

It was also an unusual year for sales: Of the 20 “non-officers” at the station, eight new recruits started in the middle of last year, he said.

“It was a huge undertaking. I had never seen that in 18 years of service.”

Contrary to the misconception, volunteer firefighters are not a pale version of the real thing, nor are they unpaid.

Without a few special exceptions, they receive the same amount of training as a professional firefighter, but do so over a period of about eight months, usually two or three times a week, and must be just as physically fit. They get rates from about $19 per hour (probation) to $30 for a captain.

Advertisement 5

Article content

There are 20 volunteer posts within Ottawa’s system, and the ideal complement is about 25 firefighters each. About 50 new employees were added last year and the target for this year is about the same. Currently, the communities of Kinburn and Corkery need help in the west.

“What distinguishes an urban service from a rural service is nine times out of ten we know the person who is in trouble, right?” said Chief Roy, who made the switch to firefighting from a synthetic turf company.

“So the mental part of it is much harder.”

(Just this week he was in a head-on crash outside Navan where he knew one of the drivers.)

There have also been rare instances of volunteer firefighters being rescued by their own platoon mates, such as a young farmer who mutilated his arm in a device a few years ago.

Advertisement 6

Article content

So it can come home. Captain Vanmunsteren, part of a family business that milks about 110 heads and farms 700 hectares, related a phone call several years ago about a burning barn on Canaan Road, one with a milking herd. He recognized the address.

“For me, at least that’s one of the most stressful, more adrenaline-pumping things you can see on a beeper.”

He remembered the rush to get the animals out of the burning barn—they tend to both stay and, once outside, return—knowing that a family’s livelihood was at stake.

While he was still inside, there was the curious twist where he felt “blown up” from behind by a snake. He would only later discover that dripping plastic had fallen onto his back and that he was briefly on fire, “rescued” from an injury by another volunteer.

“That’s part of what you do. We’re small families, aren’t we?’ He said the service is happy to “put out” the hard calls to help anyone who is experiencing distress or trauma, which includes professional help.

“You don’t want those phone calls, but at the same time, you’re glad you’re there to help.”

For more information, visit

To contact Kelly Egan, please call 613-291-6265 or email

Advertisement 1


Postmedia is committed to maintaining a lively yet civilized discussion forum and encourages all readers to share their thoughts on our articles. It can take up to an hour for comments to be moderated before appearing on the site. We ask that you keep your comments relevant and respectful. We’ve enabled email notifications – you’ll now receive an email when you get a reply to your comment, there’s an update to a comment thread you’re following, or a user follows comments. Visit our Community Guidelines for more information and details on how to adjust your email settings.

Leave a Comment