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Editor’s blog


January 23, 2012
By Laura King


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Jan. 23, 2012 – Two fires. Two fatalities (one confirmed, one presumed). Two elderly occupants. Within spitting distance of each other in southwestern Ontario this weekend: Friday night in Halton Hills, and Sunday morning in Mono Mills.

Jan. 23, 2012 – Two fires. Two fatalities (one confirmed, one presumed). Two elderly occupants. Within spitting distance of each other in southwestern Ontario this weekend: Friday night in Halton Hills, and Sunday morning in Mono Mills.

In both cases, fire crews arrived to homes fully engulfed. None of the news stories about the fires and fatalities mentions smoke alarms, presumably because damage was so extensive that fire officials don’t yet know if there were working smoke alarms in the homes.

The Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs and the Fire Marshal’s Public Safety Council is working on a new, hard-hitting campaign for smoke alarms, aimed at vulnerable groups. Clearly older people living alone in rural areas is one of them.

There’s still confusion over the federal tax credit for volunteer firefighters. In a press release Friday night, the Stephen Harper government noted that Gail Shea, minister of National Revenue, along with Bob Zimmer, MP for Prince George-Peace River, and Dick Harris, MP for Cariboo-Prince George, had visited the Pineview fire hall in Prince George to promote the tax credit.

The visit was simply a photo op – there have been several since the $3,000 non-refundable tax credit (which equates to about $450) was announced in the 2011 federal budget.

The press release notes – as we already know – that the tax credit is available to any volunteer firefighter who serves at least 200 hours a year at one or more fire departments, and that services that make up the 200 hours include responding to and being on call for fire fighting an other emergencies, attending meetings at the fire department, and taking courses in preventing and putting out fires.

Fire-service leaders are waiting for details from Ottawa about the term on call. Indications are that clarification is imminent – hopefully today or tomorrow – and that on-call hours will indeed be eligible. That would mean that the majority of Canada’s 85,000 volunteer firefighters will be able to claim the tax credit rather than just those in busier departments at which training plus response times add up to 200 hours.

This just in: The Canada Revenue Agency has indeed clarified the wording on the tax credit and it is posted on the CRA website here.
 
Essentially, on-call hours are eligible and it’s up to individual fire chiefs to measure the hours that each firefighter contributes.
 
There’s some interesting new wording, though, around suppression versus other fire-department services, such as public education or maintenance, that’s worth reading carefully. This makes it clear that the tax credit applies primarily to firefighters who respond to calls.

It was a busy but productive couple of days last week at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs labour relations seminar in Toronto.

Record attendance of more than 250 fire chiefs and municipal human resources managers was a clear indication of the concern about liability (Meaford, Point Edward, Deep River, Listowel), the 24-hour shift, bargaining trends, and the need to restructure the fire service in an era of shrinking budgets and growing demands.

Here are some of the phrases – or questions – tossed around by labour lawyers for consideration by fire chiefs: Fewer fire stations? Less overtime? Part-time firefighters? Fourteen-hour days, 10-hour nights? Hiring freezes? Layoffs? The elimination of flat staffing? Increased accountability for fire prevention? The deployment of fire vehicles outside of fire stations (sitting in a pumper in the Tim Hortons parking lot waiting for calls, rather than in a nicely equipped fire hall)?

While the presenters were strong, and the topics relevant, and the two days of sessions were informative and, by times, intense, the issues are long range and need considerable exploration and attention by fire-service leaders. We’ll do our part and look at many of these issues in coming editions of Fire Fighting in Canada.

Lastly, for a Monday in January – nose to the grindstone time! – there’s a nice story developing involving several fire departments and fire-service suppliers in Ontario and a small department in a place called Bird Cove in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Steve Cooke, the fire chief in Central Huron, Ont., happens to have a 30-year-old pumper on hand, still in good condition. Although the Newfoundland government and the provincial fire-services association have a 90/10 cost-sharing program for fire apparatus, Bird Cove can’t afford even 10 per cent – or $10,000.

I’ll let Chief Cooke tell the rest of the story.

“This thing is really taking off. I have had offers of ‘still serviceable’-PPE and other equipment to go along with the truck. A donor who wishes to remain anonymous has offered to fly two people out here to drive it back. At the same time, another contact is sending out feelers about getting it floated down to the Maritimes for free, but I don’t know how that will work out. My MP is looking into a ferry pass, either through the government or a private corporate donation. Darch Fire . . . is coming in next week to go over the valving and check (replace if necessary) the packing on the pump (at no cost). I have even has a call from Barrie, Ont., from a gentleman who has offered to drive the truck out if needed. It seems that every time I turn around someone is there willing to donate or help somehow.

“Here is a little background that I have developed from talking to [Mayor] Richard May and Chief Todd Coombs out there.

“Apparently, about 30 years ago, Bird Cove was a thriving little community and established a fire department to protect its residents as well as the people in Brig Bay, Plum Point, Blue Cove and Pond Cove. As history shows, that time period of relative prosperity for these fishing villages started to decline with the diminishing cod fish population. I am sure the cancelling of the seal hunt was also a major factor, both in immediate economic benefit, and the resulting impact on the Atlantic cod population. The fire department continued to operate, but there were no funds to keep the equipment upgraded and it slowly degenerated. According to Chief Coombs, they are now operating with a single portable pump and very little other equipment. Everyone in the communities involved is actively fundraising for new equipment, but there is only so much they can do.

“The trickle-down effect of essentially not having an effective fire department, aside form protecting their residents, is that mortgage companies will not lend money for properties that cannot get fire insurance, and insurance companies are reluctant to lend money when there is no credited fire department in place to protect that investment – a real-life Catch 22.

“The total population for these five communities was listed at 846 people in the 1996 census. I have been informed that a figure of 680 people would be more accurate today. As you can see, there is not much of a tax base there to get funds for anything, much less build a fire department from the ground up.

“The Newfoundland government has a program to assist communities in this situation and will provide 90 per cent funding for major purchases, but in this case these people cannot even afford the 10 per cent portion they would be required to produce.

“Having said that, what we are trying to do is NOT give them a fully operational fire department, but to supply them with enough of our surplus equipment that will allow them to operate in a safer (if officially un-credited) manner until they can replace their most essential equipment. It is a stop-gap solution, but at least it is better than doing nothing. We are just trying to give our firefighter brothers and sisters in Newfoundland a helping hand.”

We’ll keep you posted.

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