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Volunteer Vision: December 2011

This past summer, the Canadian government recognized the value of volunteer firefighters by introducing the volunteer firefighter tax credit.

December 5, 2011
By Vince Mackenzie

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This past summer, the Canadian government recognized the value of volunteer firefighters by introducing the volunteer firefighter tax credit.

The tax credit, and the effort by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Canadian Fallen Firefighter Foundation, and all Canadian firefighters and their supporters to lobby government through the givefirefighterscredit.com website, is a true win. To have the federal government recognize the volunteer fire service this way is an honour and is very much appreciated.

We are just about to complete the first taxation year in which some volunteer firefighters can claim the federal $3,000 tax credit. The 2011 personal income tax return will have a new line in Schedule 1 – the federal tax section – to allow firefighters who qualify to claim the credit.

I can’t speak for fire-service associations in each province, but the Newfoundland and Labrador association has received many inquiries about the implications and limitations of the tax credit. Issues have been raised on conference floors, particularly the 200-hours-of-duty requirement and what tasks can be included in those 200 hours. According to the Canadian Revenue Agency website (www.cra-arc.gc.ca/firefighter/), eligible services include responding to and being on-call for firefighting calls and related emergency calls as a firefighter.

OK, so now the 200-hour conundrum: What does on-call mean? And who interprets the term on-call?

If you ask firefighters across the country, most will tell you that they are on-call 24-7, carrying pagers and ready to respond. Others may say that their fire departments assign and schedule times for specific firefighters to be on-call in order to share the burden and guarantee a minimum response to all calls at all times. There are obligations in this system other than just carrying around a pager, such as remaining in the response district at all times while on-call. Do these hours count? Or, does on-call mean on a call to which a response has been initiated and the crews activated?

As you know, the 89,000 volunteer firefighters in Canada work under myriad schemes and systems, leaving the fire chiefs or other administrative people to determine what each firefighter can count toward the 200 hours of service required to claim the new tax credit.

Fire services in many parts of this country are provided by volunteers who are on-call 24-7/365. While I recognize the need to establish criteria, why can’t we just allow all volunteers to take advantage of this benefit? I do agree that there must be minimum criteria, but can’t we make the tax credit little more realistic and attainable for Canada’s volunteer fire departments? Most volunteers average two hours per training night once a week and an odd weekend training session, almost guaranteeing 100 hours in training alone. I suggest that 100 hours of training per year be part of the criteria, to ensure compliance and guarantee that the tax credit will serve as an incentive to train. But another 100 hours may be difficult to attain for firefighters in small, rural departments that don’t get the call volume to add up to 100 hours – these volunteer firefighters keep a 24-7 watch over their communities, just like career firefighters, but will not be able to take advantage of the tax credit.

We do not decide which calls we respond to; we simply answer the alarms as they come in. And volunteer firefighters certainly don’t think about which calls will give them more hours to add to their taxation qualification. As we all know, one call can be half an hour or half a week – we just stay until the call is done.

The volunteer firefighter tax credit is in its infancy. We asked the government for it, we appreciate it, and it recognizes volunteer firefighters as a value to Canadians. I just hope that the tax credit will mean something to all the men and women of Canada’s fire services, not just those in the larger and busier departments, or the ones unfortunate enough to have a lengthy emergency in their towns in a particular tax year.

The tax credit will not benefit the majority of the fire service because the 200 hours is unattainable for many smaller departments. With recruitment issues as they are, the tax credit will not likely help these rural departments become stronger. Even with perfect attendance to a weekly two-hour training session and a handful of emergency calls, many Canadian volunteers will be hard-pressed to meet the 200 hours. Yet volunteers maintain the 24-7 emergency coverage in our communities. Shouldn’t that count for something?


Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is the president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Service, the second vice-president of the Maritime Fire Chiefs Association and a director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. E-mail him at firechief@grandfallswindsor.com


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