IN THE NEWS ~ Firefighters pushing for change

Firefighters pushing for change

Lobbying Public safety officials in Canada feel they lag behind in line-of-duty benefits

Adam Huras, New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal~City, Page: C1

   SAINT JOHN - The country's firefighters are lobbying the federal government for compensation benefits for all public safety officers who are permanently disabled or killed in the line of duty.

   Paul Stackhouse, the head of the Saint John firefighters union, joined firefighters from across Canada in Ottawa this past week to call for line-of-duty benefits.

   The International Association of Fire Fighters, which speaks for more than 21,000 professional firefighters in Canada, is also asking to be given priority access to vaccines and anti-virals during an influenza pandemic.

   It also wants to be at the table when changes are made to the national building code.

   "Firefighters go to work every day willing to risk their lives," Stackhouse said, adding that as the first responders to most catastrophic events, firefighters simply want the best tools to do their job with safety and their family's future also in mind.

   The United States has had the Public Safety Officer Benefit in place since 1976. The indexed benefit is immediately available to the families of public safety officers who are killed or disabled in the course of their duties.

   First implemented at $50,000, the benefit was increased to $250,000 after the events of 9/11 and has since been increased again to more than $300,000.

   In Canada, the argument has been that because most firefighters are municipally employed, it is up to municipalities to provide some appropriate form of compensation.

   But only a small minority of professional firefighters has been able to bargain for that kind of benefit, and for sums not nearly realistic enough to address the needs of a grieving family that has lost a major source of income.

   The association estimates that the benefit would cost the Canadian government approximately $7.5 million annually, based on the current average of 18 firefighters and seven police officers who die in the line of duty annually in Canada.

   "It's something we have been looking for in Canada for the past number of years," Stackhouse said.

   The union head said that in meetings with members of parliament last week it was communicated that firefighters would be able to increase public safety if they were given priority access to vaccines and anti-virals during an influenza pandemic.

   Firefighters also want to be a part of discussions involving the national building code.

   "When they change the code, they have to take into consideration how long structures hold up in extreme heat," Stackhouse said. "They have to take into consideration that we're running into these buildings as people are all running out."

   The meetings spurred New Democratic MP Peter Julian to rise in the House of Commons last week to urge the federal government to enact a Public Safety Officer Compensation benefit in Canada.

   "Today we rise in the House to pay tribute to the firefighters of Canada for their selflessness and sacrifice," Julian said. "Today we renew our pledge to work to establish a public safety officer compensation fund for our nation's firefighters and police officers. Their courage is exemplary. They deserve no less."

   Stackhouse said he feels favourable change is near.

   "I'm hoping so," he said. "The Harper government is going to have a look at this and with their majority in the House I would think it has a good opportunity to be passed."

© 2011 Telegraph-Journal (New Brunswick)