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Job protection legislation for volunteer firefighters draws mixed reaction

A bill to protect the jobs of volunteer firefighters when responding to an emergency call may be resurrected.
A bill to protect the jobs of volunteer firefighters when responding to an emergency call may be resurrected.
A bill to protect the jobs of volunteer firefighters when responding to an emergency call may be resurrected.

A bill to protect the jobs of volunteer firefighters when responding to an emergency call may be resurrected.

Bill 212, Employment Standards Code (Volunteer Firefighter Protection) Amendment Act was introduced in the Legislature last December and proposed allowing firefighters to leave their work without risk of losing their jobs. However, given the number of proposed bills, the Legislature ran out of time to get through them and Bill 212 died on the order paper.

Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock MLA Glenn van Dijken said he heard that his UCP colleague Wayne Anderson, MLA of Highwood, who had introduced the bill before, is looking to bring it forward again as a private member's bill - details were unavailable and the Westlock News did not receive a reply from Anderson by press deadline.

'What's evolving over time is the demand on volunteer firefighters," van Dijken said. 'The scope of their work has significantly changed, and so we look at businesses being able to function based off of the needs that have been placed on volunteer firefighters (now), as opposed to what the needs were previously. I think that's why there's a certain reluctance amongst business to operate in the same manner that they previously operated.

'Now to legislate it, that's the challenge we have, is to get it right where we don't all of a sudden find ourselves in a position where we have no volunteer firefighters."

One issue he said to consider is how often volunteers are called from work and whether it's two to four times a year, or two to four times a week.

'I think what we have is we need to fully be able to understand the implications not only to volunteer firefighter positions, that we have those positions filled, but we have to recognize the strain that it puts on businesses and try to find that balance," he said.

A local volunteer firefighter approached van Dijken after Bill 212 came out about giving the same legal protections to volunteer firefighters as reservists in the Armed Forces.

In Alberta, reservists are legally allowed by the Alberta Employment Standards Code to take a leave of absence from their job when deployed with the Armed Forces, for training, or for an operation.

Reservists must also have been with their employer for 26 consecutive weeks and provide four weeks notice of when they will leave and return.

Volunteer firefighters, unlike reservists, do not know when they will have to respond to a call and therefore can't provide notice.

van Dijken noted that in his understanding, the potential bill would be more in line with compassionate care rather than military service, though he didn't know the specifics.

Stuart Koflick, director of emergency management for the Town of Westlock and fire chief for the town's volunteer fire department, said he was initially on board with the legislation, but after some time he thought it could have unintended consequences.

'If you're going to legislate into supporting this type of operation, you may find that whether you like it or not, somebody that's applying for a job with a business and is known to be a volunteer firefighter may not gain employment," he said. 'The owner of the business may not be in a position to have you leave."

Other consequences he could foresee are people not volunteering because they feared they wouldn't get a job.

'Volunteers are hard to come by nowadays," Koflick said. 'If there's legislation involved where it'll force an employer to have to let their employees go, that may cause further problems."

He encouraged volunteers, or potential volunteers to discuss what types of calls they respond to and when, and also have that conversation with their family.

'If the legislation comes into place, it's out of our hands, but what we can control is maintaining that relationship with that employer, and if it's a good relationship, there won't be any issues," Koflick said.

On that note, he said he understood that depending on the time of day, some volunteers wouldn't be able to respond because they're at work. In any case, he didn't have concerns, as there are mutual-aid agreements with neighbouring departments.

'Locally, I think some of these issues could be solved with maintaining a good relationship with the three parties involved (employee, employer, fire department)."

Peace River-Westlock MP Arnold Viersen said that job protection and security legislation are under the jurisdiction of the provinces and even on the reservist level, it varied from province to province.

'What I have heard is the difficulty in recruiting and retaining volunteer firefighters across northern Alberta and I know that one of the things our government did was we brought in the tax credit for volunteer firefighters," Viersen said. 'So there's only limited things that the federal government can do on this issue, but one of them was if you're a volunteer firefighter, there's a tax credit available to you."

Volunteer firefighters can claim up to $3,000 on their tax form if they were a volunteer firefighter or search and rescue volunteer during the year and completed at least 200 hours of those services. Eligible services include responding to or being on call, attending meetings held by the fire department and taking part in training related to preventing or suppressing fire.

'I have to commend our volunteer firefighters and the volunteer fire departments across northern Alberta," Viersen continued. 'They do amazing jobs and often, out of their own personal time, spend a significant amount of their personal resources on getting trained, supplying some of the supplies. And also their employers are typically on board with it as well, and provide for them to be able to leave at a moment's notice to go fight fires. I'd like to thank their employers as well."


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