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Deadly crash in southwestern Manitoba highlights ‘crucial’ role of volunteer firefighters, fire chiefs say

Volunteer firefighters were the first to arrive at a deadly crash in southwestern Manitoba on Thursday, but officials say their numbers have been dwindling since 2016.

Emergency response would have taken longer if not for volunteer firefighters: Manitoba Fire Chiefs Association

A police officer is shown near police tape in front of a damaged semi trailer in a ditch.

When 15 people died in a fatal crash on a highway in southwestern Manitoba this week, volunteer firefighters were the first emergency responders on the scene.

The crash, which happened near the town of Carberry, also injured 10 people.

The 25 people were on a small bus that collided with a semi, RCMP said. They were mostly seniors from around Dauphin, which is about 150 kilometres north of Carberry and 320 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

While volunteers make up the majority of fire departments in Canada, fire officials said their numbers have been dwindling since 2016 — despite their key role in responding to emergencies across the country.

Dauphin Fire Chief Cameron Abrey said volunteer firefighters and even bystanders were among the first responders to the collision.

"I don't think there's anything that can prepare you for the scale of an incident such as this," Abrey told reporters in Dauphin on Friday.

Although no firefighters from Dauphin were deployed to the scene, Abrey said responding to situations like Thursday's crash is never easy, especially for smaller fire departments.

"Nobody signed up for an incident such as this. The fire departments that responded to the incident are not career," he said.

"You can do all the training that you want … but to actually arrive at a scene such as this — you fall back on your training and you do everything that you can."

Manitoba's office of the fire commissioner has set up support systems for emergency responders who were at the crash near Carberry, and Dauphin has been hearing from emergency crews coast to coast, he said.

"Emergency services really are a small family."

WATCH | Dauphin fire chief speaks to reporters after deadly crash:

Severity of Manitoba crash weighs on responders, Dauphin fire chief says

1 day ago

Duration 1:46

Dauphin fire chief Cameron Abrey said his department is offering support to the first responders, some of whom are volunteer firefighters, who were on scene at the deadly crash involving a bus and a semi near Carberry, Man.

Manitoba RCMP Supt. Rob Lasson said there were dozens, maybe hundreds of people who initially responded to the crash, including bystanders who stopped their vehicles on the roadside to help.

"I don't know exactly how many volunteers that were stopped there, but I know that there [were] copious amounts of people," he said at a Friday news conference.

The people on board the bus — 19 women and six men — were between 58 and 88 years old, according to Lasson.

Shared Health, Manitoba's provincial health agency, has identified the 10 patients who are currently in hospital, which means anyone else who was on board the bus is "presumed deceased," he said.

Volunteer response critical in crash

The Carberry North Cypress-Langford Fire Department, which helped respond to the deadly crash, is made up of volunteers who provide emergency services throughout the town and rural municipality.

The fire department thanked everyone who joined in the rescue efforts in a statement posted to Facebook on Friday.

"The coordinated efforts of all of us were nothing short of astounding. To the many civilians that helped at the scene, we thank you," it said.

Cal Funk, a board member of the Manitoba Fire Chiefs Association, said Thursday's crash "would have dragged out much longer than it did" if not for the Carberry North Cypress-Langford Fire Department.

He estimates that it could have taken about 45 minutes for emergency responders from the nearby cities of Brandon and Portage la Prairie to drive to the scene of the crash, and that it likely took volunteers in Carberry five to seven minutes to drive there.

"There's your difference [between] having firefighters within your little communities, as opposed to having the paid professionals in the larger centres," he told CBC News.

Abrey, who is also president of the provincial fire chiefs association, said 80 per cent of Canada's fire departments "rely on their community members to provide the service in the time of need."

In Manitoba, well over 90 per cent of the province's approximately 230 fire departments are composed of volunteer firefighters, he says.

But their numbers have dwindled significantly and they aren't being replenished at the same rate. About 30,000 firefighters across the country retired or resigned from 2016 to 2022, Abrey said.

"Our firefighters are getting older, and the smaller communities don't have that young population that are signing up to join anymore," he told CBC News in an interview later on Friday.

"As the population of a community decreases, unfortunately so does their fire department."

Abrey said Manitoba firefighters lack access to psychological and psychiatric services, but stress management teams from the province's office of the fire commissioner have been making strides to improve supports.

While the work of volunteer firefighters is "crucial," Funk said the mental burden attached to it is heavy.

"We carry a pretty big load," he said. "It's hard to get it out of your head sometimes, and that's probably one of the hardest things that volunteer firefighters face is [that] we're seeing things that our bodies were never designed to see."

He said volunteer firefighters don't get the credit they deserve.

"Our country would not … survive without the volunteers in our system."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ozten Shebahkeget

Online reporter

Özten Shebahkeget joined CBC Manitoba in 2021 through the inaugural Pathways program. She is Anishinaabe/Turkish-Cypriot and grew up in Winnipeg's North End. She holds a master of fine arts in writing from the University of Saskatchewan. You can reach her at ozten.shebahkeget@cbc.ca.

    With files from Josh Crabb, Alana Cole, Caitlyn Gowriluk and Rachel Bergen

    *****
    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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