Friday, July 24, 2009

Rewarding Volunteers

What powers ACE communities and other active, creative and engaged communities? A commitment to society drives them, and the depth of their volunteer ethic fuels them. Empty the tank of volunteer support and the commitment to community comes to a gradual halt.
This is not an earth-shaking pronouncement. Most of our political leaders proclaim the importance of community volunteers. Yet they often deliver the level of that support needed to protect the legitimate interests of community volunteers.
A recent tragedy in Golden, British Columbia involving search and rescue volunteers has sharply focused the attention of Alberta volunteer groups. In this case, a husband and wife who were skiing at a resort in Golden ignored clearly-posted out-of-bounds signs and went missing. The couple was lost for over a week, and the wife died of exposure. As a result of that tragedy, her husband is suing the Mounties, the ski resort and the Golden and District search and rescue team for failing to conduct a proper search.
Liability insurance is of vital importance to the volunteer community. Existing liability insurance policies protect the Mounties and the ski resort operators and staff. There was liability insurance protection for volunteers in the Golden, B.C. Search and Rescue team. However, Golden Search and Rescue would have lost liability coverage if they were on a search without being called in by authorities. Now, they are being sued because authorities didn’t call them out. It’s all a wee bit crazy-making.
In Alberta, Search and Rescue Alberta president Monica Ahlstrom says that of Alberta’s 40 search and rescue teams, as many as 15 have no liability insurance. Bill 49, introduced this spring in the Alberta Legislature, promises extended “good faith” liability coverage for firefighters and fire departments protecting them from lawsuits arising from their professional duties. Yet there is presently no plan to include Search and Rescue volunteers in the proposed legislation.
Another issue emerging from the Golden tragedy concerns individuals who choose to ignore clear warning signs, meet with disaster, and then launch lawsuits. This has implications for every community hall or sports facility in Alberta, and any volunteer organization delivering public service.
Should volunteers performing community work in good faith expect a basic liability protection consistent with fire crews? Should community volunteers expect legislation ensuring that those choosing to ignore clear and adequate warnings are liable for the consequences of those choices?
Perhaps it’s time that volunteers tested the depth of the reservoir of “good faith” coverage trumpeted by our politicians. How could they test that “good faith”? Alberta’s volunteer community could- and should– ask for a “Volunteer Bill of Rights and Responsibilities” that clearly outlines the terms of volunteer service, including risk mitigation. That would go a long way towards “filling the tank” of the volunteer spirit.

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