New tax break for SAR crews, firefighters

It’s a small gesture, but Haida Gwaii’s volunteer firefighters and search-and-rescue crews are welcoming plans for a new B.C. tax credit.

It’s a small gesture, but Haida Gwaii’s volunteer firefighters and search-and-rescue crews are welcoming plans for a new B.C. tax credit.

Announced shortly before the BC Liberal government’s pre-election budget, the new tax credit is worth up to $150 a year.

Along with volunteer fire crews in Old Massett, Masset, Port Clements, Tlell, Skidegate, Queen Charlotte, and Sandspit, Haida Gwaii has the volunteer Masset Marine Rescue Society in the north and the Queen Charlotte-based Archipelago Search and Rescue, which provides ground SAR service across the islands.

“It’s nice to be recognized, and to be put on an equal footing with volunteer firefighting,” says Chris Ashurst, president of the Masset Marine Rescue Society and manager of Archipelago SAR, noting that the province has paid more attention to volunteer SAR groups in recent years.

“I think they recognize they’re getting an excellent bang for their buck by having volunteers do all this sort of stuff.”

To receive the new credit, volunteers must register 200 hours a year as firefighters, search-and-rescue workers, or both.

Combined with a similar federal credit that was recently extended to SAR crews, the total tax break is about $600.

But not all volunteers will meet the 200-hour threshold, which includes training, standby, and response time, plus up to 100 hours of administrative work.

And even for those who do, $150 or $600 a year doesn’t come close to covering the extra costs volunteers pay, said Ashurst, such as childcare, special equipment, or fuel to get to training.

Ashurst said SAR volunteers have plenty of paperwork, especially this year Masset Marine Rescue is applying for grants to fund a new rescue boat, and Archipelago SAR recently formed its own non-profit society to step up fundraising and training.

“Just to get enough money to stay active requires so much volunteer time behind a desk,” he said, not just stomping through the woods or bouncing over the waves.

From 1992 to 2016, the 80 SAR groups across B.C. have seen call volumes rise from just under 500 to over 1,500 calls per year, with the vast majority being ground rescues.

To cut down on administration and provide better data on those calls, the B.C. Search and Rescue Association is seeking a province-wide, digital records system to replace the current paper-based system of filing call-related expense claims.