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Calgary bucks international trend of disinterest in firefighting, with graduation of 36 new firefighters

With a great deal of pride, Calgary Fire Department Chief Steve Dongworth introduced the latest graduating class of firefighters to the wider Calgary community on Thursday.

The March 30 graduation of 36 firefighters was one of a four planned classes this year—three to follow in the coming months—with another four classes in 2024 and 2025.

The recruitment and graduation of the latest class is an aberration in North America, as fire departments nationally and internationally are facing difficulty in finding and retaining firefighters.

“I talked to my colleagues from across North America and they’re really struggling in terms of they put out a call for firefighters. They’re seeing unprecedented levels of disinterest,” said Chief Dongworth.

“In November, we opened our doors for a month for applications, and normally we get about 2,000 applicants and we got around 2,000 applicants. So we’re not seeing the same phenomenon in Calgary yet.”

Chief Dongworth said that they are aware of that could change in the city, and that efforts are being made to attract “great people to serve a great city.”

The new graduates will be assigned to one of the city’s fire stations where they will then complete eight months of probationary service and training. All of the graduates completed 12 weeks of training, which included vehicle extrication, live fire exercises, emergency medical response training, and community fire prevention and safety.

“It’s an exciting day for these folks. They put their heart and soul into weeks of hard recruit training,” Dongworth said.

“They deserve to be recognized today. For Calgarians, you may see one of these great people on one of our apparatus if you happen to have an emergency in the next few days—they’ll be going straight to operations.”

Aggressive hiring plans for fire department service expansion

Chief Dongworth said that part of the reason why the service has been able to engage in aggressively hiring new firefighters is a result of additional funding passed by Calgary city council.

The City of Calgary provided an additional $34.2 million to the CFD over four years in the last budget, on top of an investment of $10 million over four years from the city's projected surplus.

"I can't say thanks enough for that, and I think that reflects some support from citizens as well in terms of this is a service where it was the time to invest,” he said.

Dongworth said that the additional firefighters would begin to reduce the time taken to respond to calls, especially after the completion of the new station in the community of Belvedere.

"One of the things we've seen is exponential growth in call volume for 2021-2022: 10 to 15 per cent increases in call volume, and we're seeing the same for 2023 in the first couple of months,” he said.

"This class is going to allow us to open a new station in a few weeks time: 45 station Belvedere. That means we'll have better response times into that part of the city, which will have some small impact on the whole city picture."

The additional recruitment, he said, would also mean more staff on ladder trucks ensuring that response times are not degraded.

A Calgary Fire Department graduate salutes Calgary Fire Chief Steve Dongworth after recieving his forage cap at Mount Royal University on Thursday, March 30, 2023. ARYN TOOMBS / FOR LIVEWIRE CALGARY

Council continues to act as advocate for Fire Department

Mayor Jyoti Gondek congratulated the new graduates, stating that the message she wanted to deliver was one of deep respect, admiration, and appreciation.

"The work that you've chosen to do is nothing short of heroic. There's no other word to describe a properly,” Mayor Gondek said.

"This week in particular, we're reminded of the incredibly unpredictable nature of your work and the calls that you will be asked to respond to," she said in reference to the March 27 house explosion in Marlborough.

She said that city council recognizes that the nature of the calls that the department is seeing, and the tasks they are being asked to perform, are well outside of the department's original training.

"Responding to a fire - period - has become more complicated, but the types of calls that fire is responding to as the first on scene have become incredibly difficult to navigate through,” the mayor said.

"They are dealing with things that typically emergency response teams would code to, like ambulances would show up first, and now we're seeing trucks show up in a well in advance of someone from EMS."

Mayor Gondek said that unlike the police, which have a commission to advocate on their behalf, council has had to take on that advocacy role in its absence.

"We had a process by which council was trying to figure out how to fund fire halls in a very bizarre manner and it had to do with new community growth, and I think what we need to do is understand that the fire department is the equivalent of the police department,” she said.

"The way that that budget is brought forward is through a commission, and so with the lack of a commission for the fire department they count on council to advocate for what they need. We have been able to do that as a new council and I'm very proud of that."