Saturday, January 28, 2023

St. Mary’s volunteer fire departments at risk, official says

Deputy Warden Fuller wants ‘solid plan’ for key service

  • January 11 2023
  • By Alec Bruce, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter    

ST. MARY’S – James Fuller, Deputy Warden of the Municipality of the District of St. Mary’s, is raising the alarm about the future of volunteer fire departments in the area, noting that many are stretched to the limit of their resources.

“What does it say when your fire department has to have a bake sale just to have enough [money] to save your life and put your house out?” he told The Journal in an interview last week. “Let’s come up with a solid plan.”

Fuller, who is a firefighter with the Goshen Volunteer Fire Department, made the comment following a committee of the whole meeting on Jan. 4, during which he outlined the circumstances now facing many who are responsible for protecting people’s lives and property in the district.

“One of the problems is that the fire departments are sending people out as first responders [and] the training is not inexpensive,” he told his fellow councillors. “I just completed a first responder’s course, and it was almost $600. We do have training grants to the fire departments, but one person going to one course would eat that up completely. There are times when we’ll be at an accident scene before the paramedical people are there. Now, all our firemen are basically first-aiders [but] we may run the risk of losing somebody.”

Fuller — who spent 30 years in law enforcement in the United States before moving to St. Mary’s in 2012 — said another problem is the dwindling pool of volunteers.

“Every fire department is hurting. You look at the average age [here] and there are times when I’m the youngest guy, and that is saying something. We have to get some younger people involved. We just picked up three new people [in Goshen] who are under the age of 40, and that was like a miracle.”

Fuller isn’t the first to raise issues surrounding community firefighting in St. Mary’s, which relies on eight departments — Sherbrooke & Area Volunteer Fire Department, Ecum Secum Volunteer Fire Department, East River St. Mary’s Volunteer Fire Department, St. Mary’s District Fireman’s Association, Goshen Volunteer Fire Department and Liscomb Volunteer Fire Department — and hundreds of regular and seasonal volunteers.

“Anything fire-related involves a lot of money,” Sherbrooke’s Fire Chief Wayne Auton told The Journal in 2020, when the municipality issued about $50,000 in operating grants (fire tax levies, worker’s compensation, training, administrative support and grants to departments) to its volunteer brigades (budgeted for $52,000 in 2023). Added Goshen Fire Chief Bruce Sinclair at the time: “We are a have-not municipality with a dwindling population.”

That’s a fact, Fuller told The Journal last week, “So, let’s come up with a solid plan…The fire budget is determined by each fire district. Where I am [located], it’s per household. Now, you know that St. Mary’s is not a heavily populated household area. So, this helps pay for gasoline, but it’s not a whole lot more. The municipality has tossed in an additional $1,000 per fire company for training, [but] when we trained all our people in just basic first aid, that just ate it up.”

Given municipal resources, he said, additional money would have to come from other sources of government. “There always seems to be money in federal and provincial budgets [and] we can always ask. But, before we do, we should have a blueprint, [otherwise] this is going to be hurting the whole district.”