Volunteer firefighters reach for benefits

Alberta’s volunteer firefighters are as much on the front lines as career firefighters and should receive the same automatic cancer coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Board, said Penhold’s fire chief.

Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast dons his firefighting gear. Pendergast feels volunteer firefighters should have the same access to workers compensation benefits that full time firefighters have.

Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast dons his firefighting gear. Pendergast feels volunteer firefighters should have the same access to workers compensation benefits that full time firefighters have.

Alberta’s volunteer firefighters are as much on the front lines as career firefighters and should receive the same automatic cancer coverage under the Workers’ Compensation Board, said Penhold’s fire chief.

Since 2003, Alberta’s full-time firefighters are automatically eligible for WCB coverage if they contract certain cancers. The move followed a campaign by representatives for firefighters in several provinces to have some cancers declared presumptive, meaning it was assumed they were work-related.

However, the presumption only applies in Alberta to full-time front-line firefighters who have regularly been exposed to the hazards of a fire scene, not including forest fires, for a period of five to 25 years, depending on the cancer.

Firefighters have higher rates of cancer and contract it earlier in life than the general population, according to the Alberta Fire Fighters Association.

Some of the cancers that firefighters are covered under by the WCB include primary site brain, bladder and lung cancers, and esophageal cancer.

“Myself, I think that’s great that there’s this presumptive legislation, but as a fire chief of a volunteer department I’m disappointed it doesn’t include all firefighters,” said Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast.

“A fire doesn’t know any difference whether you’re career or volunteer, or paid-on-call, or you’re industrial or you’re a private fire department.”

Pendergast has about 30 years on the job as a firefighter in both municipal and volunteer firefighters, including a five-year stint with Red Deer Emergency Services where he was a deputy chief before leaving in 2005.

Besides volunteering in Penhold, Pendergast is a fire captain in Rocky View Fire Service outside Calgary.

He doesn’t see any reason why volunteers and career firefighters should be treated differently. It is not uncommon for volunteers, who live and work in their communities and respond to almost every incident, to go to more scenes than urban colleagues on shift work.

“So you may go to as many fires as a full-time firefighter over your career.”

Pendergast also wants to see coverage extended to other firefighters, such as those who working in the oilfield, industry or at airports.

Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk said the government is willing to look at putting volunteer firefighters into the same category as career firefighters if evidence can be provided showing they are similarly at risk from occupational cancers.

Professional firefighter associations in Canada and the U.S. collected data previously to support presumptive cancer coverage for full-time firefighters. But the same data for other types of firefighters has not been presented.

“Now, if they do present me with any science relative to volunteer firefighters, I will be the first who will look at it very gladly.”

Lukaszuk said the decision announced earlier this month to add two new cancers to the presumptive list was also supported by scientific evidence.

Bill Purdy, executive director of the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, said the issue will be raised at the organization’s next conference, which begins on June 20 in Edmonton.

A resolution will be introduced, debated and voted on to extend automatic WCB coverage to volunteer firefighters, to put them on the same status as their full-time colleagues.

The issue has been in the background for years and is in part a reflection of the changing nature of volunteer fire departments. At one time, volunteers were mostly faced with grass and structure fires and call volumes were lower.

But times have changed, said Purdy, who is also deputy chief of the 20-member strong Wabamun Fire Department.

“At one time for us some guys who have been around the fire services for a long time, we were not dealing with the same things we’re dealing with today.

“There’s a lot more cancer-causing agents out there and hazardous materials and so on that the volunteer, and the full-timers of course, are subjected to.”

Call volumes are also on the rise. Some volunteer departments outside major centres respond to more calls than urban stations.

pcowley@bprda.wpengine.com