ST. PAUL – The topic of offering volunteer firefighters compensation when battling fires that take an extended period of time to extinguish resulted in discussion between council members at a recent County of St. Paul council meeting.
During the May 9 meeting, Coun. Dale Hedrick brought up the topic, highlighting the recent increase in fires within the County of St. Paul, particularly in his division, which includes the community of Ashmont and surrounding rural areas.
He expressed concern for volunteer firefighters, stating, “They’re getting burnt out.”
Hedrick said the volunteer firefighters have been working long hours, both during the day and throughout the night. As a result, some of these firefighters have been absent from their regular jobs for over a week, and there may be some who are not being compensated by their regular employers.
As volunteer firefighters, “they do realize that when they sign up,” acknowledged Hedrick. “But they went above and beyond,” he added. Without their presence, wildfires in the County may have spread to nearby residences.
Hedrick suggested offering $500 be given to volunteer firefighters who may have been fighting wildfires for weeks and are not getting paid by their employers. “It’s not a lot, but it’s something,” he said.
Reeve Glen Ockerman expressed his gratitude for the volunteer firefighters who “went out on a limb,” sacrificing their time in addition to being away from their families.
But he did not agree with offering compensation.
“We also do run a volunteer fire department,” Ockerman said, before raising caution about where to draw the line in terms of paying for volunteer services, considering the fire departments that operate within the County are volunteer driven.
Ockerman believes the current wildfire situation is an exceptional case, and if circumstances were to persist more frequently like “every couple of months,” for example, then compensation might be more warranted.
Ockerman then mentioned other individuals and organizations, such as construction workers, heavy equipment operators, and farmers, who came together to assist during the crisis by either providing equipment or their time. “They didn’t look for fuel... for nothing,” said Ockerman.
In Alberta, people come together in extreme circumstances, and “I’m proud of this community,” said Ockerman.
It is that extremity of the wildfires that Hedrick says warrants compensation. “If they would have just went to work instead, this could have ended up costing us more,” said Hedrick.
Coun. Darrell Younghans said he agreed with Ockerman regarding the idea of not compensating volunteers. “It could be a very slippery slope,” said Younghans.
Hedrick said he does not want to discourage people from stepping forward as volunteer firefighters, and worries that if the County doesn’t help out in times like this, there will be fewer people willing to volunteer.
Ockerman acknowledged where Hedrick was coming from, before adding monetary compensation would change the whole philosophy of “who we are” as rural Albertans. “We come together, we protect our communities, we help our neighbours,” and do whatever is necessary, said the reeve.
“I appreciate them... commend them... but our structure in the County of St. Paul is a volunteer fire force,” said Ockerman.
Coun. Maxine Fodness also agreed with Ockerman, in that there are other people fighting fires who are not being compensated and are not part of the volunteer fire departments. “So, how do you do that consistently across the board?” she questioned.
Ockerman suggested coming up with an alternative way of acknowledgement as a sincere “thank-you” for what the volunteer firefighters gave up while fighting the wildfires. This could be a barbecue, a golf tournament, or an advertisement in the newspaper, he said, offering examples.
In addition to volunteer firefighters, Ockerman also suggested acknowledging others who helped in their own ways battling the wildfires, such as those who donated water tanks, or the “grandmother bringing iced tea,” for example.
“How they all come together... that’s the point,” said Ockerman. “As a municipality, we need to drive it home – we know what they did. This is their home... it’s our communities, and that’s why we did this and I’m pretty damn proud of it.”
Ockerman also noted the volunteer firefighter team from the area who went out to Grande Prairie to help as another example of Alberta coming together, and if the County were in a similar situation, “they’d have a team or two down here.”
And as Albertans, “that’s what we need to celebrate... I don’t think we need to be throwing dollars around.”
After more discussion, Coun. Louis Dechaine motioned to table Hedrick’s motion. The motion passed.