Volunteers Under Fire
All over the US and Canada, rural communities are grappling with how to provide vital emergency services to citizens amid rapid population migration into cities.
Volunteer firefighter Sam Cardarelli sits on a fire truck. Photographs by Justin Tang
It was the fall of 2017, and Sam and I were in the nosebleeds of the Canadian Tire Center in Ottawa among the screaming NHL diehards watching what looked like little stick men playing hockey from afar. I hadn’t seen my cousin in over a year. I had just come back from reporting on Ukraine, and was exhausted.
“Yeah, I’ve had my own problems, I think,” Sam told me. “Had to watch a guy get cut down that I knew after a suicide. It was really tough.” That incident had happened to him after the Christmas holidays the year before; he had seen the same person at a store only days earlier.
Sam isn’t a paramedic, a cop, or a soldier, and he’s not getting the benefits or retirement funds that might come with those jobs. In his spare time when he’s not at his actual job, or taking care of his family, Sam is a volunteer firefighter for his community, because if people like him didn’t do it, his town wouldn’t have anybody for the job. In an area of a few thousand people, firefighting often means answering emergency calls involving people you know having the worst day of their lives.
Sam’s story isn’t a rarity, either: For small towns with fewer people and vaster spaces in between them, situated along highways or in deeply forested locations far from major metropolitan areas, getting things like prompt ambulances—or even regular access to a doctor—can be an epic quest. And as budgets dwindle and populations clump, the first responders tasked with protecting these communities are getting stretched to the point of breaking.
My cousin Sam Cardarelli, 33, is married, a father of two young sons, and lives in Clarence-Rockland, Ontario, the same small town in Canada he grew up in. A former junior hockey player with a local team, he works for the local YMCA. People in town know him and recognize his wide smile, his bright blue eyes, and his giant 6'3" frame. He’s a teddy bear, but one you’d call to knock down a door and carry you from a burning building.
Located along the historic Ottawa River, which for the first few hundred years of Canadian history was a major shipping lane for beaver pelts and lumber, Clarence-Rockland is pure Canadiana. Proud of its National Hockey League exports, moose population, muskie fishing, and Franco-Ontarian charm (you can get great poutine and maple syrup in town), the city encapsulates the reality of much of the rest of the country: a partially suburban community with rural areas far from city centers.
Currently, Clarence-Rockland pays just over $1.7 million a year for its fire services, which includes two full-time firefighters during weekday hours and three chiefs. The bulk of the remaining crew, serving more than 25,000 residents, are all volunteers like Sam. With a town of this population size and geographic spread, the local government couldn’t afford full-time crews, nor would they be cost-effective. Volunteer firefighters are generally paid, but because they only respond to calls they’re available for, rather than being in the station on a regular full-time schedule, they cost less and are more flexible for cash-strapped areas. Depending on the call, Sam gets $18 an hour, give or take, and he notes that he and his colleagues definitely “aren’t in it for the money.” But Sam and his fellow firefighters don’t mind. Some have served at this station for more than 30 years, while others are rookies or only have a few years’ experience. Volunteering in the fire service is a vital community tradition.
“We love every second of it, even when it’s tough,” Sam said when I got him on the phone recently, after he finished work and was heading home to take care of his two-year-old son. “If you didn’t do it or if there wasn’t enough volunteers, the community would be at a loss… The town can’t afford to have a 15-man full-time firefighting unit.”
Being anonymous in a place like Clarence-Rockland isn’t easy, and living here means residents rely on each other. The closest hospital is 45 minutes away, and Sam and other local volunteer firefighters (a group he says includes some of his old hockey buddies, mechanics, and “everyday regular guys with full-time jobs”) are looked to for everything from putting out bush, barn, and home fires, to rescuing someone who has fallen through the river ice in winter. Most of the time, though, they’re responding to emergency medical calls that can be mentally exhausting to take on.
“This year on its own I think we’re up to eight house fires, which is unseen and unheard of in our area,” he told me.
As he got older and his competitive sports career was replaced with family life, Sam found he still yearned for the camaraderie of the hockey dressing room and “working with your friends on a task at hand, which is basically firefighting.” So he joined the force along with his brother, Mathieu.
When Sam was 13 and Mathieu was 11, their father died of a heart attack at work. Emergency services came to his aid, but it was too late. It was no surprise to me or our family that both Sam and his brother became firefighters—helping people in moments of extreme anguish has always seemed second nature to them, and the shock of losing a father at a young age undoubtedly influenced that.
With an important interprovincial highway linking traffic between Ottawa—Canada’s capital city—and Montreal, right on Clarence-Rockland’s doorstep, the fire service is the first to take calls on major accidents in the region before paramedics in outlying areas can make it to the scene. When it comes to 911 calls, “we’re definitely first up. Front line,” Sam said. And when those calls come in, hearts stop; the responders hope it’s not a loved one or someone they know when they get to the scene.
“We see some pretty crazy stuff. Fatalities. Head-on collisions. Tractor trailers flipped over, you see it all… You don’t want to see what you see. You wish it was somebody else. But somebody has to step up to the plate. That’s what we’re all doing. It’s part of the job. It’s tough,” Sam told me.
“When there’s an accident, you hold your breath that it’s not someone you know in that situation. But more often than not, it is.”
Every day, communities all over the United States and Canada rely on volunteers like Sam to handle the bulk of those critical services. The latest figures from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA)—a leading source of firefighting information—puts the number of volunteer firefighters in America at 814,850, constituting 70 percent of total firefighters, while in Canada, there are 126,650, making up a staggering 83 percent of all firefighters.
The psychological toll of this part-time gig can be brutal. When Sam first told me about his episode dealing with someone he knew who took their own life, he described sleepless nights, feeling like he could’ve done more, responses that are emblematic of the stress of being a first responder, especially one in a department that’s isolated from broader support. One 2016 study by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), found that North American firefighters and paramedics experience rates of PTSD similar to those of combat veterans, with more than 20 percent afflicted.
The time-management burden of being a volunteer firefighter along with the mental stress of the situations any day on the job can bring means there’s a high turnover of volunteers who burn out. Even Sam admits the work can affect the numbers within his department: “Retention is part of the problem, too.”
“New information is now known about the emotional toll these incidents take on our nation’s professional firefighters and paramedics as a result of what they have seen and experienced in the course of protecting the public,” the IAFF study noted. And it states that it isn’t simply events like responding to the 9/11 attacks in New York City that can give firefighters PTSD, but “everyday emergencies, such as house fires and car accidents—can severely traumatize not just the victims but the firefighters and paramedics who respond to these emergencies on every shift at considerable risk to their own safety.”
A thesis paper done in 2010 at Laurentian University in Sudbury on volunteer firefighters in Ontario found that most are trained less rigorously, paid less, and receive fewer benefits for a job that other firefighters already find tremendously difficult to process. On top of all that, at the time, rural fire departments failed most at providing PTSD-related support.
The author of that study, Brad Campbell, told a local newspaper in Ontario that the problem boils down to political decisions from smaller municipalities all over the province. “How much service do you want to provide, and how much are you willing to spend?”
The fire service Sam works with provides a hotline for when something graphic and traumatizing happens on the job, and Sam has received peer-to-peer training to recognize PTSD among his colleagues. He also has his wife, whom he calls his “rock,” and his friends and family. “They helped me get through [it]. That’s my way of dealing with things. But other people don’t have friends. They just shut down and don’t want to talk about it,” he said, wondering aloud about his 24/7 on-call side gig: “How do you balance the impact of the job of being a volunteer firefighter and also having to do your actual job?”
After particularly challenging calls, he says his unit is “definitely looking out for signs of distress” from fellow firefighters who might not be dealing well with something they’ve seen.
“It’s hard on the family when you don’t sleep as well and if it’s a serious incident. Especially when lives are lost,” he told me. “But we have a support system here.”
Many rural communities across both the US and Canada are disproportionately poorer, older, and worse hit by the opioid crisis than populations in cities. According to US government figures, 57 million Americans call rural areas home, while in Canada, 20 percent of its more than 35 million citizens do. Every year millions of Americans are retreating from rural areas or smaller towns in favor of bigger cities; it’s a trend that is sucking tax revenue from more remote locations and creating geographic inequalities, leaving people and towns behind to make up the difference. These spaces still hold tremendous importance: It’s where many natural resources are located that both nations depend on. And the people who are still there need critical assistance, though by most metrics they’re not getting it.
Car accidents and burning bogs aren’t the only thing testing these volunteer firefighters. In 2017, Clarence-Rockland underwent unprecedented flooding and declared a state of emergency in what turned out to be a water level management issue affecting the St. Lawrence River basin between Quebec and Ontario. The province of Ontario’s environmental commissioner—an independent governmental watchdog on environmental policy—blamed the incident on climate change, showcasing the town’s low-lying areas near the Ottawa River as the perfect example of what’s to come.
“It was definitely a draining time emotionally because you’re ‘go go go’ and trying to save everybody’s houses and cottages and not taking the time for yourself,” Sam recounted. “Essentially at this point we were working mostly as friends, not as firefighters. Taking time off work sandbagging 48 hours straight, just watching that water rise.
“And then when you stop is when your body shuts down and your mind is emotionally drained,” he added.
A 2018 study by the National Rural Health Association—a nonprofit organization taking a lead on rural health issues in the US—looked into the challenges of providing rural emergency services across America, and put it bluntly: “While rural America may conjure idyllic images of family farms, the truth is far more staggering,” it said, going further to illustrate the problem:
Despite this clear need for increased healthcare access in rural areas, only 9 percent of practitioners in the U.S. work in rural America. Additionally, rural hospitals are facing closure crisis, with about 41 percent of Critical Access Hospitals (CAHs) facing negative operating margins, which further decreases possible points of care for people with a pronounced need.
Which raises the question: Who takes care of volunteers like Sam if they have a life-altering experience on the job they can’t manage themselves?
This month, Sam might need to leave his position on the firefighting force, not because he’s sick of the experience or burned out, but because he added a new part-time gig to his roster: He was elected a city councillor for the region. Either way, the fire service just gained a new ally on city council.
“Being in that role as a firefighter, there’s definitely room for improvement,” he said. “I guess I’m going in there with eyes wide open and definitely being responsible with taxpayers’ money.”
It’s clear the experience of being a rural firefighter, in an area like so many communities across North America, isn’t one Sam regrets. His service to the community also underscores a deeper truth: Rural residents aren’t waiting for outsiders to help them solve the issues facing their communities amid the rush to urban areas. They’ll solve it themselves, even if it means becoming the town’s first responders in their spare time.
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