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B.C. volunteer firefighters, SAR teams get tax break 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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

Susie Quinn

About the Author: Susie Quinn

A journalist since 1987, I proudly serve as the Alberni Valley News editor.
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