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'Disturbing' rise in violence against first responders sparks proposed legislation

New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian pushes for tougher laws to protect firefighters and first responders
Local support: New Westminster and Burnaby fire departments support MP Peter Julian’s private members bill, Bill C-345. photo Theresa McManus

The stabbing death of a young police officer in Burnaby and the assault of a firefighter attending a routine call are being cited as examples of why first responders need added protections under the Criminal Code.

On June 19, New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian tabled Bill C-345 in the House of Commons, legislation aimed at protecting firefighters, paramedics and other first responders. At a July 5 news conference, Julian said firefighters, paramedics and other first responders put their lives on the line to protect communities across Canada.

“Yet, we have seen a striking increase in aggravated assault of firefighters, paramedics and other first responders,” he said. “What my legislation does is add firefighters and paramedics under the definition of first responder in Section 2 of the Criminal Code so their safety is being protected.”

Julian said it’s been “disturbing” to see the increase in violence against firefighters and paramedics.

“A recent study in Manitoba actually showed that 50 per cent of all firefighters had at some point, been kicked or hit or pushed. And we see 75 per cent-figures for paramedics,” he said. “So that is disturbing to see this rise in violence against firefighters and against paramedics. And that is the primary reason why I tabled Bill C-345.”

According to Julian, his private members bill would result in an automatic charge of first degree murder in cases where an assault of an on-duty first responder, firefighter or paramedic leads to their death.

“This is very similar to the language in the Criminal Code that exists now for police officers,” he noted. “Secondly, what it does is increased penalties for assaults against firefighters and paramedics. And thirdly, it creates an offense in the Criminal Code of assault against a firefighter or paramedic, assault against a first responder. What this bill does is ensure that firefighters and paramedics are protected to the same extent as police officers.”

At a July 5 news conference at the Glenbrook fire hall, New Westminster and Burnaby fire departments offered their support for the bill and encouraged Canadian MPs to support the bill.

Representatives from the New Westminster Firefighters Association Local 256, the Burnaby Firefighters Association Local 323 and the BC Professional Fire Fighters Association joined New Westminster and Burnaby fire chiefs in supporting the proposed legislation.

Todd Schierling, president of the BC Professional Fire Fighters Association, said it’s time that legislation provides first responders with the same level of protection as peace officers.

“With increased social and housing pressures in our communities, incidents of assault and violence toward first responders are rising,” he said. “We work to ensure that emergency scenes we attend are made safe for our firefighters and the public that we serve. Threats and violence should not be part of our working conditions. … We need to end the violence that targets first responders, paramedics and firefighters.”

Schierling said an International Association of Fire Fighters survey conducted within the past five years showed that 30 per cent of fire department had experienced at least one act of violence against firefighters while responding to structure fires, while 40 per cent had reported acts of violence towards personnel during medical calls.

“It’s concerning; it’s on the rise,” he said. “We need to fill the gap with legislation.”

Burnaby and New West fire departments back bill

Shane Poole, president of New Westminster Firefighters Association Local 256, said all workers deserve to have safe working conditions and to be bel to go home to their families at the end of the day.

“We know our job is inherently dangerous, but when we’re responding to calls for help we should not have to be faced with the potential for violence or assaults,” he said. “We’re hoping this bill will bring to light the seriousness of these crimes and potentially prevent more in the future.”

Scott Alleyn, president of Burnaby Firefighters Association Local 323, said Bill C-345 would provide firefighters with the assurance that they will receive the same protections under the Criminal Code as the other agencies they work with day in, day out have.

“Firefighters across this country are placed in harm’s way while performing their duties on the job,” he said. “From coast to coast to coast, IAFF brothers and sisters continue to serve their citizens without hesitation, and should do so in confidence, not having to be worried about the threat of violence.”

New Westminster fire Chief Erin Williams supports the proposed legislation.

“We know that our first responders are facing increased risks to their personal safety, and that comes in many forms – known carcinogens, occupational stress and intentional violence,” he said. “Bill C-345 that has been tabled by member of Parliament Peter Julian will be an important tool in preventing violence against our first responders.”

Burnaby fire Chief Chris Bowcock said the legislation would help protect first responders while they are vulnerable and are protecting other people.

“It’s in the toughest of times is when our folks shine the brightest, and in those times are times that are typically very difficult for a lot of citizens,” he said. “At times, their reactions to some of the events that they find themselves can be troubling and put our workers at risk.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, fire officials cited a number of examples of cases where first responders have been subjected to violence, including a fire captain in London, Ontario, who was recently assaulted when responding to alarms ringing. Another noted a case where a fire apparatus was smashed by a man wielding a two-by-four, after crews responded to a complaint about an open burning.

The October 2022 stabbing death of Burnaby RCMP Const. Shaelyn Yang, a homeless and mental health outreach officer accompanying a City of Burnaby parks employee to a homeless camp in a Burnaby park, also hits home for first responders.

“The assaults that we experience are becoming more of a reality in our profession,” Alleyn said.

Poole said he hadn’t heard of any specific acts of violence against New West firefighters, but he said first responders are concerned about the potential for incidents when responding to certain situations, such as encampments or locations where drugs are being used.

“It is very unpredictable,” he said.

Williams said there have been reports of people being “very combative” with first responders. He said New West firefighters attended a medical emergency on a transit bus that highlighted some of the risks faced by first responders.

“The person had a decreased level of consciousness. So as part of their assessment, we do what’s called a rapid body survey, and they discovered that the person had a handgun,” he told the Record. “Even though it wasn’t an assault, the potential for that was fairly significant.”

Next steps?

Julian said he’ll be writing to all members of Parliament this summer to gauge the level of support for his bill. His hope is that it could get unanimous consent, which would allow “rapid passage” in the House of Commons in the fall session.

“Many bills in Parliament go through a very protracted process,” he said. “But there are bills where there’s a consensus and unanimity, and these kinds of bills, as we’ve seen over the course of the past couple of years, can be passed within a few moments by all members of Parliament, if there’s unanimous agreement.”