WINDSOR, N.S. — On July 22, volunteer firefighter Logan Hope made a heroic rescue as historic flooding hit Nova Scotia, but eight days later — injured and off work — he was struggling to make ends meet.
“I’m trying to survive. Today, I didn’t even have enough money to pay for my (truck) fuel,” he said in a recent interview.
Last week, Hope, a 25-year-old member of the volunteer fire department in Brooklyn, N.S., was lauded for holding onto a woman as floodwaters swept him off his feet, and keeping her above water until his colleagues pulled them both ashore. During that rescue northwest of Halifax, Hope tore ligaments in his knee, forcing him to take off work at his regular job as an electrician.
But under the existing workers compensation system, Hope’s weekly income is cut by about $300. Mandatory for volunteer fire departments to provide, the program pays injured volunteer firefighters 75 per cent of their salaries for the first 26 weeks off work.
While federal and Nova Scotia political leaders sing the praises of volunteers who save lives during climate disasters, rural firefighters are calling for a new system that fully covers their lost income if they get injured, and that offers more generous honorariums and tax credits.
Jeremy Bahri, a 29-year-old firefighter with the Brooklyn volunteer fire department, said he went through a struggle last year similar to Hope’s.
“I agree there should be full coverage for injuries,” he said in a recent interview. “For me, when I hurt my ankle a year ago during a wildfire and I had to go through the workers compensation, I lost out on pensionable time.”
“It’s time for the province to step in and give us more coverage for health and benefits.”
Second-generation volunteer firefighter Jason Ripley, chief of the Greenwich, N.S., fire department, describes the current compensation system as a “patchwork” of honorariums, benefits and injury assistance.
“They (firefighters) shouldn’t be suffering a financial loss for volunteering to protect their community,” he said.
In 2019, the province made it mandatory for municipalities to pay for the workers compensation coverage that volunteer fire departments offer members. Individual volunteer fire departments, however, are free to top up that system with extra coverage.
Jason Cochrane, the chief of Brooklyn’s volunteer fire department, said in a recent interview that his department doesn’t have a top-up program. But he added that the department could ask the municipality, on a case-by-case basis, to cover some of his members’ lost wages should they get injured.
Abraham Zebian, the mayor of the Municipality of West Hants, which includes Brooklyn, said the province needs to provide extra funding to help small communities offer firefighters a uniform level of benefits. His municipal council, he said Wednesday in an interview, is operating on a tight budget.
Premier Tim Houston told reporters Wednesday that the province can’t afford a shift to full-time firefighters and faces “financial limitations” in providing more money to volunteer departments, adding that the province would “look at ways” to get them more equipment.
However, Kody Blois, the Liberal MP for Kings Hants, said during a news conference Wednesday that as hurricanes grow more intense and wildfires drive residents from their homes, support for volunteer responders must increase in Nova Scotia and across the country.
He called on the federal government to increase its tax credit, currently set at $3,000, to reduce taxable income of volunteer firefighters.
Brett Tetanish, the deputy chief at the Brooklyn fire department, said in an interview Wednesday that the supports are needed to stem a decline in the recruitment and retention of volunteers. Climate disasters, like flooding and wildfires, are requiring operations that are longer than they used to be — such as the recent 10-day search for the bodies of four people swept away by floodwaters on July 22.
Hope said he has also noticed the struggle to recruit. “People’s lives are busy … and we see some pretty crazy stuff,” he said.
“I’m going to have to put my (regular) work before the fire department. That’s how it’s going to have to go. It’s a hard thing to do when you care about your community.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 3, 2023.
Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press