Volunteer Vision: March 2012
By Vince MacKenzie
The volunteer firefighter tax credit announced in the 2011 federal budget was a welcome addition in support of the volunteer fire service.
By Vince MacKenzie
The volunteer firefighter tax credit announced in the 2011 federal budget was a welcome addition in support of the volunteer fire service. In my last column, in December, I wrote about the 200 hours needed to qualify for the tax credit, and the definition of on-call. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) had indicated on its website that firefighters “on-call for firefighting and other related emergency calls” were eligible for the tax credit, but there was confusion about the term on-call.
I am happy to write again on this topic, as the CRA clarified the meaning of on-call in a Jan. 20 update to its website (go to www.cra-arc.gc.ca, search the word firefighter and click on Volunteer Firefighter Tax Credit (VFTC)). It seems the questions raised in December’s column were valid and were on the minds of many volunteer firefighters and fire chiefs. In my view, this clarification is favourable. Meeting the 200-hour criterion would have been challenging for rural firefighters had attendance to emergency calls and training been the only eligible activities. Smaller communities don’t have the numbers of emergencies to facilitate those kinds of hours, but the provision of 24-hour coverage demands that firefighters be on-call and maintain a constant vigil. This clarification by the federal government recognizes the commitment of volunteer firefighters and allows most volunteer firefighters to qualify for the new tax credit.
Determining on-call hours for each volunteer firefighter should not be difficult, but some departments may need to modify some of their documentation or scheduling practices. Many volunteer departments, including my own, schedule personnel to be on-call so that firefighters are obligated to be available and to respond when their crews are on duty at specific times. Some departments have weekend duty crews; others have week-long engagements on a rotating schedule. If a firefighter will be unavailable, out of town, or otherwise unable to respond, most departments have a system under which another firefighter is scheduled to fill in and thus be on-call. This ensures a minimum response. Some communities may not have such systems, so I recommend that departments adopt this practice for documentation purposes and to ensure a response adequate for firefighter safety and backup.
Looking at NFPA 1720, fire officers need to know what capabilities they have at scenes. Occupational health and safety practices require that fire officers know as much as possible about incoming resources in order to keep crews safer. Some smaller departments have limited personnel, essentially placing everyone on-call all the time, and no provisions for firefighters who are not available. This could lead to dangerous situations; having limited personnel handicaps fire departments into providing service only to a level to which they can safely respond. Having an official schedule and a documented system of duty crews for volunteers not only helps to maintain safer and constant coverage, but also aids in documenting on-call time to satisfy the tax man when firefighters claim the new credit.
There’s more new information on the CRA’s website about the tax credit that is relevant to eligibility, mainly surrounding primary duties or primary hours. Primary hours are defined as time spent responding to and being on-call for firefighting and related emergency calls as a firefighter, attending meetings held by the fire department, and participating in required training for suppression and prevention of fire. I agree with this. Other types of duties include maintenance and public fire education, for example. The criteria require that more than half of the 200 hours be spent doing primary duties. Most members of volunteer fire services are suppression firefighters, but some provide support through maintenance, public education, administration and dispatch.
Fire-service leaders advocated for the tax credit on the basis of appreciation for those who provide 24-hour fire protection. So, requiring at least half of the 200 hours to be primary duty hours, including on-call time, makes sense. One can argue that the tax credit was not intended for those in fire departments whose services are valuable but do not participate in the 24-hour vigil that offers protection to our citizens. If the tax credit were offered to those support personnel, every volunteer in any credible service club or organization would seek some kind of tax relief.
So, what makes firefighters so special that they deserve a tax credit? Few organizations require the training, risk, dedication, time and physical fitness that the fire service demands to conduct its primary duties. Members of most other volunteer community service organizations get to pick and choose their hours to serve; firefighters don’t have that luxury. Hence, being on-call is recognized for firefighters whose lifestyles usually include family and personal sacrifices in order to meet their fire-service obligations. Recognition of volunteer firefighters, in the form of the tax credit, is a worthy investment by the government of Canada and the provinces that have implemented similar benefits.
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 email@example.com