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Volunteer Vision: Defining the volunteer firefighter

February 16, 2022 
By Vince MacKenzie

In my November column, I gave a brief snapshot of some of the data collected during the Great Canadian Volunteer Census conducted by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC). During that census, a very important question was asked around the definition of a volunteer firefighter. The definition has been the focus of all things financial with respect to qualifying the eligibility for the volunteer firefighter tax credit and Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) eligibility during the early stages of the pandemic. 

What is the definition of a volunteer firefighter? A simple question with a plethora of interpretations over the years. The Great Canadian Volunteer Firefighter Census was conducted last April to find a national definition based on the experiences of the CAFC with these issues nationally.  Almost 1150 fire departments contributed their data from across Canada. 

Before the census, when fire departments were asked to define a volunteer firefighter, there were many and varied responses depending on locale, demographics, community profile, and call volume. The fire service, could not formally agree as to what constitutes a volunteer firefighter. It also caused some confusion over the years as Canada Revenue Agency applied these factors to eligibility for the tax credit and CERB. 

Why does it matter? Why is the definition of a volunteer firefighter in Canada so important? Each fire department defined it differently, with the same premise but adding their own local flavour or experience. Let’s face it, some fire departments provide several services in a multitude of ways; some with remuneration and some not. Fire departments also may provide other services like medical response, hazmat, highway vehicle extrication, water rescue, and wildland fire fighting. Some are financially supported by their communities better than others and some are not supported at all. The term volunteer can take on many meanings. 


To make a long story short, the census respondents overwhelmingly agreed that the following definition is what a volunteer firefighter is in our country.

“A Volunteer Firefighter is someone who is available or on-call to perform fire services, emergency services, and non-emergency duties for a jurisdiction (fire department) as needed. They may receive nominal remuneration (i.e. not a livable wage considering hours and/or pay) for their time, and generally have other occupations.”

So now the next question. Why does this matter? In Canada, since 2013, volunteer firefighters and ground search and rescue volunteers are eligible for a $3000 volunteer firefighter income tax credit. We need the CRA to understand and apply this to its qualifying criteria, recognizing what a volunteer firefighter is and the value they contribute to Canada financially. The value is realized by those of us close to the profession, but the definition also needs to be modernized, as does the amount of the deduction afforded to the country’s emergency volunteers. The CAFC has stated this to MPs in their lobbying for some time.  

To me, this value is certainly understood in Courtenay Alberni, B.C., by MP Gord Johns, who introduced a private member’s bill C-201 to the House of Commons to raise that tax credit from $3000 to $10,000. It’s time to modernize the credit available to those who step up and volunteer to respond to our emergencies in our country. We don’t have to look very far to see the challenges every town in our country experiences when we respond to whatever threatens Canadians. From COVID-19, to floods, wildfires, landslides, and transportation accidents, one has only to turn on any news channel to see our volunteer firefighters on the job, answering the call every day. All Canadians need to know how valuable volunteer emergency responders are to their respective communities. We are the first line of life-threatening protection for every citizen; the first call on the worst day of their lives. But our volunteer numbers are dropping, that important fact was realized in the census. We need this bill to pass help strengthen and better appreciate our fire service.

I’m sure I don’t need to explain to you the personal financial costs of being a volunteer. Ask your MP to pay close attention and support the bill C-201. Let’s also work on cleaning up the definition so that all volunteer emergency responders can avail of the credit, helping ensure our fire services stay strong for every Canadian community.

Vince MacKenzie is the fire chief in Grand Falls-Windsor, N.L. He is an executive member of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the past president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Fire Services. Email Vince at and follow him on Twitter at @FirechiefVince

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