Province backs volunteer firefighters

New government legislation to protect municipalities and their fire departments from liability is a welcome show of provincial support, say area municipal leaders.

New government legislation to protect municipalities and their fire departments from liability is a welcome show of provincial support, say area municipal leaders.

Delburne Mayor Bob Manning said anything the government can do to help municipalities recruit and retain volunteer firefighters is a step in the right direction.

In announcing the introduction of legislation to extend liability protection, Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk acknowledged the challenge many municipalities face in keeping their firefighting ranks filled, especially communities that rely on local volunteers.

“This legislation is a key part of the government’s response to improve the ability of municipalities to support their fire services and support our goal of creating strong and effective communities.”

Delburne put out an urgent call for volunteers earlier this year after the local department dwindled to only a handful of members. The recruiting drive proved successful and about a dozen firefighters have committed to answer the alarm in the village 35 km east of Red Deer.

Manning said municipalities have been lobbying through their provincial organizations for the changes for some time and he’s glad to see progress has been made.

“The government recognizes that to have volunteers out fighting fires they have to support us. Not all of us can afford paid firefighters.

“Our fire department is doing basically the same work professionals are, but on a volunteer basis.”

The amendment to Bill 49 will extend to municipalities and their fire departments the “good faith” liability protection that individual firefighters have. The good faith provision offers liability protection on the grounds that firefighters and their department acted with good intentions and according to their duty, says the government.

Alberta Fire Chiefs Association president Brian Cornforth said the legislative changes are a response to the increasing number of lawsuits over the last 10 years that have named departments and municipalities.

“It’s starting to surface here in Alberta where fire departments have been drawn into the legal arena,” said Cornforth.

While most of the cases have occurred in the bigger centres, there have been occasions where small communities have been named in legal action.

Red Deer County Mayor Earl Kinsella also supported the government’s move.

“Anything that you can do to help us attract and keep well-trained volunteers is really appreciated by the county,” he said. “They are very important to us for the safety of the residents of the county.”

Ric Henderson, the county’s director of community and protective services, said “every little bit of liability protection helps.”

Municipal Affairs spokesman Tim Chander said by extending liability protection, firefighters can go about their jobs knowing there are measures in place to prevent their municipalities or departments getting involved in frivolous lawsuits. Similar protection is already in place for other first responders, such as police departments.

“We want firefighters to spend their time fighting fires versus using their time to prepare for court cases.”

Both the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association and the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties have pushed for the legislative changes.

The amendments were to go to second reading Tuesday. They could become law as early as this spring.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com