Wilmot’s volunteer firefighters face new challenges while dealing with emergencies

“A COVID outbreak within our station would be a serious problem,” said Wilmot Fire Service Acting Captain Mike Gilmore. Nigel Gordijk photo.

Mike Gilmore is one of Wilmot Fire Service’s 84 volunteer firefighters, serving among the 32 members who are based at New Hamburg’s Station #3. He joined in 2001 and is now an Acting Captain on one of the station’s four platoons. “When a platoon’s Captain is absent, the Acting Captain fulfills that role,” he said.

The firefighters wear pagers that notify them with different tones to indicate if the emergency requires a fire or medical response. A minimum response is guaranteed, with each platoon responsible for covering one week per month.

“We’re a busy department in New Hamburg, responding to as many as 400 calls a year,” said Gilmore.

Even though the role is voluntary, it’s highly demanding, said Wilmot’s Fire Chief Rod Leeson. “Volunteer firefighters know that they can be on call 24 hours per day, seven days per week when they take the job. This means lost sleep, missed birthday parties, anniversaries and other special occasions and family time.”

The primary motivation is “to be part of a voluntary fire service as their civic duty to the community that they and their families live in. Monetary compensation is not the main driver.”

In addition to on-call service, Wilmot’s firefighters train each Monday evening.  Weekend sessions are scheduled for more involved scenarios that can’t be learned in a two-hour period.

COVID-19 has affected how firefighters prepare for and attend calls, said Gilmore. “Within the department, we have a health and safety committee and a fire management team, which has met weekly. The resulting procedural changes have been introduced in a 35-page pandemic response guideline.”

“The 911 call taking process has changed to protect first responders. A baseline of COVID questions are asked, so we’ll have the most critical information and be prepared when we arrive on scene.”

“We’ve limited the number of firefighters per truck in an attempt to respect social distances. We don our PPE (personal protective equipment) and undergo rigorous disinfecting of our trucks and the station upon return. Procuring all the necessary materials continues to be a challenge.”

Gilmore owns Hillcrest Service in New Hamburg, an automotive sales, repair and towing service. “Our daily operations are very different currently. I’m typically in Toronto twice a week at vehicle auctions, which are understandably closed to dealers right now. They’re offering online auction options, but I don’t like the idea of buying a car based on a picture.”

“(At Hillcrest) we’ve adopted our own set of guidelines. Car repairs and towing has been deemed essential. There have been a lot more restrictions placed on vehicle sales.”

Wilmot’s volunteer firefighters have full-time professional careers, and as restrictions are imposed in their work places, so does their ability and availability to respond to calls. 

“We need to be very careful. We don’t have replacement volunteers in reserve, so a COVID outbreak within our station would be a serious problem.”

Emergency call volume has decreased, due to less traffic on the road. “We’ve seen the number of accidents reduced, so that’s positive,” said Gilmore.

The drop in medical emergency calls is a concern. “There’s a real fear of going to hospital. Being afraid and not calling in a timely manner could mean a patient’s condition worsens and becomes more serious. If you feel you need medical assistance, call 911,” he urged.

Ontario fire departments recorded a 65% increase in fire responses since January. However, Gilmore said, “We haven’t seen that in Wilmot Township, which is a testament to residents’ good fire safety habits. It’s critically important to keep fire safety top of mind to prevent fires as we isolate and spend more time in our homes.”