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N.S. fire chief wants protection for volunteers who respond to emergencies while on the job

Joshua Snyder, the chief of the volunteer fire department in Smiths Cove, N.S., said all departments are in need of more volunteers. (CBC - image credit)
Joshua Snyder, the chief of the volunteer fire department in Smiths Cove, N.S., said all departments are in need of more volunteers. (CBC - image credit)

A fire chief in Digby County, N.S., is calling for provincial legislation that would stop employers from reprimanding volunteer firefighters if they leave work to respond to an emergency.

Joshua Snyder, the chief of the Smiths Cove Volunteer Fire Department, said he's heard some volunteers are reluctant to respond while working, and some employers have even refused to let workers leave.

"We are facing more and more calls. We are needed," Snyder told CBC Radio's Information Morning Cape Breton on Tuesday.

"It would be a travesty if you have a call and no one responds because they cannot leave work and they feel like they're going to lose their job."

Synder said there is desperate need for more volunteer firefighters across the province, and there have been times within his own department when only three people have responded to an active structure fire.

"It's stressing, it's panicking, because you just keep wondering where everybody is. Is the fact that someone is scared to leave work hindering the department's ability to be able to do its job?" he said.

"So it's frightening, it's alarming, and this is something that's happening all across the province."

Synder is now calling on the provincial government to create new legislation that would prevent volunteer firefighters and search and rescue personnel from being reprimanded if they respond to an emergency while working.

"I'm not naive to the fact that a business still has to run, but when you need a volunteer to respond to a tragedy … you expect someone to show up," he said.

Volunteer firefighters from the Port Williams are shown with one of the fire department's trucks. The department's fire chief resigned on June 14, citing concerns over safety issues involving personal protective gear.
Volunteer firefighters from the Port Williams are shown with one of the fire department's trucks. The department's fire chief resigned on June 14, citing concerns over safety issues involving personal protective gear.

Snyder said legislation could encourage more people to volunteer if they knew their jobs were safe when they go to an emergency during work hours. (Port Williams Fire Department/ Facebook)

He said this kind of legislation would encourage more people to volunteer because employers would be legally bound to allow them to leave during emergencies.

Snyder launched a petition in the spring, which is starting to gain some traction. As of Tuesday afternoon, the petition on Change.org has more than 770 signatures.

Lloyd MacIntosh, chief of the volunteer fire department in North Sydney, said he would support the petition, but he does have some reservations.

"If a person was working by themselves in a corner store and an alarm came in — doesn't matter the seriousness of the alarm — if they left that job and locked the doors, that's a whole day's revenue for a store or a small business that they're not going to get," MacIntosh said.

"You know these things need to be taken into account."

MacIntosh said his department has 35 members, all of whom have permission from their employers to respond to emergencies.

"Some of the employers grade the call — [volunteers are] not allowed to leave for certain types of calls, grass fires and things," he said.

"Others don't have any reservations at all. They let them go to any call they need to go to. But again, common sense needs to prevail."

Snyder said he did contact Minister of Labour Jill Balser, who also happens to be his MLA, about his concerns.

He said he was told that he should go to the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia to gather more support as he "would have a better footing going forward if there was a bigger voice behind me."

CBC News reached out to the Department of Labour, but did not hear back in time for publication.

Greg Jones, president of the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia, said Snyder's petition is on the agenda for the next directors meeting.

"Every employer is different in their province and we've really seen it highlighted with the wildfires most recently and also with the flooding, so it's a real important conversation to have and it's something that we really need to take a look at," Jones said.

Snyder said he has been getting calls from other volunteer firefighters thanking him for raising something they've been reluctant to discuss.

"People are encouraged to do the right thing. We push that. We need volunteers," he said.

"Every fire department, every current search and rescue needs volunteers, and if they are going to face job action, job laws, get in trouble, then you're going to see an even bigger challenge for fire departments and ground search and rescue."

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