Two men who began their firefighting careers as volunteers in Niagara-on-the-Lake are now working for the department and looking for fresh volunteers to train.
Nick Ruller grew up in Virgil’s Homestead neighbourhood, went to Virgil Public School and then “District,” as locals still refer to the secondary school now closed. He became a volunteer firefighter in 1999, fresh out of high school, and in 2003 was hired as a professional firefighter in Toronto — the goal of many who start off in the local department.
Like many young adults, Ruller said he couldn’t wait to get away from this small community and move to a big city, and also like so many others, decided “four kids later” this was the very best place to raise his family. He got his Toronto-born wife onside, moved to Garrison Village, and became the deputy fire chief for his hometown. His kids, one aged six, seven-year-old twins and a nine-year-old, go to Crossroads Public School, which replaced his elementary school, also now closed. And he’s living the dream: he loves being back in NOTL, working for the Town of NOTL and being part of a great fire department.
In the office next to him is another local boy now grown up: Dave Ignatczyk, son of a former lord mayor (Stan Ignatczyk was mayor from 1988 to 1991), got his start as a volunteer firefighter with the St. Davids station 14 years ago.
He’s now a full-time employee of the fire department as a training officer — a job he started just last month — and is preparing for the next round of recruits.
Ruller said the goal for the recruitment drive now underway is to attract 15 to 20 trainees, with the most need in the Glendale and Old Town stations.
The Glendale department, the newest, was opened with firefighters shifted from other stations, but needs a few more people to reach its full complement of volunteers. The recruitment is also required to fill positions that will be vacant from firefighters retiring or moving away in the Old Town and other stations, he said.
There are posters up around town, and information about the recruitment process is available online and in social media, with a cut-off date of April 30. Although applications can be submitted year round, he said, only those who apply by the end of April will be considered for this year’s training program.
There was no recruitment drive last year, but that’s not unusual — the need for new folks determines whether it’s held annually or every other year, which makes for better use of resources, given the intensity of training and the amount of time it takes for staff and seasoned volunteers who help out with it, said Ruller. Training is about 200 hours, on weekends and week nights, and once new recruits are transitioned to active roles, it continues with firefighters in their departments during regular Monday evening sessions, and some weekends as needed.
There have been some changes to training standards legislation recently: the Ford government announced it was scrapping mandatory firefighting training certification regulations that, under the Wynne government, were set to come into effect in 2019.
But that hasn’t had much of an effect on the NOTL department, said Ruller. Volunteers have always been trained to provincial standards, but the Liberal government’s anticipated change would have meant every firefighter would have to be tested and certified according to those standards, which had not been the case previously in NOTL.
But because of the anticipated legislation the department began testing for certification, with most volunteers either qualifying for certification because of skills and experience, or having been tested and certified. Some are in the process of preparing for provincial testing.
Despite Ford’s announcement that the necessary certification will be dropped, all new NOTL recruits will now be tested under provincial standards, Ruller said.
The best part of working in a small town, with a volunteer department, said Ruller: “I wake up happy every morning to be going to work. The members of our department are not here for the money. They are involved in this for all the right reasons. They care deeply about what they’re doing and derive satisfaction from being part of a great team. Training encourages volunteers to be part of an organization where so many people are driven and motivated. It can be tough, but for those who are interested, there is no limit to the information and training that’s available.”
Ruller says the biggest challenge in training recruits, and the reason it can be tough on them, “is we want to provide the level of service our residents and visitors to our town expect and deserve. And we want to ensure our firefighters get home safely to their families.”
Information sessions for those who think they might be interested in becoming a volunteer firefighter will be held April 17, at 7 p.m. at the Glendale station, and April 25 at 7 p.m. at the Old Town station. Family members of potential recruits can also attend, said Ruller, to learn about the application process and the amount of time required in the role of a firefighter.
Applications are available online at notl.org. For more information call 905-468-3266 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.