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NDP secures tax break for volunteer firefighters, SAR teams in federal budget

Fire chiefs say MP Gord Johns’ advocating for higher benefits will help with recruitment, retention

A Vancouver Island NDP MP has secured a tax break for volunteer firefighters and search and rescue members in the 2024 federal Liberal budget.

Gord Johns, from the riding of Courtenay-Alberni, has lobbied for several years to double the tax credit that volunteer firefighters receive in exchange for the hours they log responding to emergency calls.

“Last summer, we all saw how devastating the wildfires were. They forced communities to evacuate and people to flee their homes,” said Johns. “It was the volunteer firefighters and search and rescue responders at the front of this nationwide emergency—and many had to go on leave from their jobs to do it.

“Being a volunteer firefighter is entirely at one’s own expense, and with how high costs have risen, it’s become more difficult for many to do this life-saving work.”

READ MORE: Courtenay-Alberni MP Johns says volunteer firefighters deserve tax break

The budget document released April 16, 2024 will increase tax credits from $3,000 to $6,000. This will give volunteer responders up to an additional $450 back on their taxes, at an estimated cost to government of $105 million over six years. The credit will start this year.

The Courtenay-Alberni riding comprises 20 volunteer fire departments and three volunteer ground search and rescue squads, Johns said. Across the country, 71 percent of Canada’s 126,000 firefighters are volunteer, according to the most recent Great Canadian Fire Census. In 2021 Johns worked with the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) and the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association to bring forward a bill to help fire departments and SAR groups increase the tax credit for volunteers. He re-introduced the bill again in 2023.

The CAFC applauded the decision. “This is a strong and meaningful recognition of the essential firefighting and search and rescue personnel that volunteer in our communities every day and particularly during a gruelling wildfire season,” said Chief Ken McMullen, president of the CAFC. “We can’t do enough for these individuals, but this is a great start.”

READ MORE: ‘Trees going up like Roman candles’ as B.C. wildfire season starts early

Over the past two years, fire chiefs, their departments and many others from across the country have generated data, prepared briefs, signed petitions, contacted their MPs, asked municipal councils to pass resolutions and more. Results from the 2023 Great Canadian Fire Census helped paint the “powerful but precarious” picture of volunteer firefighter involvement across the country, according to the CAFC. A total of 534 departments from all types submitted data.

Fire chiefs in Johns’ home riding say the tax benefit will be a good tool for recruitment and retention of volunteers.

Cherry Creek Volunteer Fire Department Chief Lucas Banton is five members down from full strength right now—he usually has a complement of 25 firefighters for his regional district just outside of Port Alberni’s city boundaries.

“It’s an acknowledgment of the work being done by volunteers…in an area where we’re getting less and less volunteers,” Banton said. “It is meaningful.”

Cherry Creek went to paid on-call about six years ago so its members wouldn’t lose wages by leaving their jobs for emergencies. Banton said it is just one way to “bridge the gap” so volunteers won’t feel they have to spend copious amounts of time away from their jobs. The tax credit will help too, he said.

Ucluelet Fire Chief Rick Geddes agreed that the tax benefit will be another tool in his toolbox to retain volunteer firefighters. Geddes is one of two paid members in his department that includes 19 volunteers and room for more. Before moving to the west coast of Vancouver Island he spent 20 years as a volunteer firefighter in the Alberni Valley. His father, Pete Geddes, was also a firefighter in Port Alberni.

READ MORE: Alberni Valley firefighters take part in FireSmart training with BC Wildfire Service

“There’s not a lot of perks” for volunteer firefighters or search and rescue members—the people who give their time to serve their community, Geddes said. “Often there is a loss of wages when volunteers get called to put out a fire or attend a call.” In the past labour unions would have it written into their employment contracts that a company would pay wages of anyone called to fight a fire, but there are fewer companies willing to do that, he added.

Volunteers will have to serve a minimum of 200 hours in order to qualify for the tax credit. That can add up quickly for active volunteers, says Geddes.

Ucluelet’s fire department was one of two mentioned directly in the budget booklet, which also acknowledged the growing pressure on first responders in small communities facing an increasing number of natural disasters. Geddes said the recognition was appreciated.

“When I passed it on to my firefighters they were quite excited. It was quite an honour for (Johns) to call and tell me our department would be mentioned.”

He thanked Johns for taking the initiative. “Fire chiefs across Canada are all very thankful for this campaign.”

Banton acknowledged the “tremendous amount of work” that went into bringing this tax credit to fruition. “It’s fantastic that a Member of Parliament in our areas was successful in getting this passed.”

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I have been the Alberni Valley News editor since August 2006.
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