A dramatic increase to the firefighters disability fund premium will force municipalities to downsize or shut down their local fire departments completely, according to the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick.

Nackawic fire chief

Nackawic Fire Chief William Hopkins said the town's fire department may see changes to its membership because of the sudden increase in insurance premiums. (Julianne Hazlewood/CBC)

"For a lot of municipalities it will mean a reduction in the number of firefighters and that's not necessarily safe," said Raymond Murphy, the executive director of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick.

WorkSafeNB recently announced it's raising the annual amount municipalities and local service districts will pay into the fund from $444 per firefighter to $690.

The fund, which is run as part of the Firefighters' Compensation Act, allows firefighters with illnesses, such as cancer, to claim workers' compensation benefits.

Nackawic's fire department may see changes to its membership because of the sudden increase, according to Nackawic Fire Chief William Hopkins.

He said he will start by looking at the attendance record of the volunteer firefighters to gauge whether the town should continue paying premiums for all members.

"If we got somebody that's only coming out once or twice a year, [it's] definitely going to have an impact on whether they'll stay a member of the department," Hopkins said.

The increase of more than 50 per cent is set to come into effect January 2015. It's supposed to cover improved survivor benefits. 

Some towns and cities may also increase their tax rate to pay for the new premium, Murphy added.

'We were left in the cold'

Firefighters

Raymond Murphy, the executive director of the Union of Municipalities of New Brunswick, said he's not against paying more to expand firefighters' benefits. But he said WorkSafeNB's premium increase happened too quickly and without any warning. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Murphy said he's not opposed to paying more to expand benefits, but he says WorkSafeNB's increase happened too quickly and without any warning.

"Initial response was total shock ... there was no consultation done by WorkSafe New Brunswick," according to Murphy.

Charles Kavanaugh, the president of the New Brunswick Association of Fire Chiefs, said he asked WorkSafeNB in 2013 to let his group know whether there would be any increase, so that fire chiefs could give municipalities fair warning.

Instead, they weren't notified by the government agency, according to Kavanaugh.

"We found we were left out in the cold, not being told it was coming," Kavanaugh said.

"We had asked to be advised if there was an increase and weren't."

'Totally, totally out of line'

WorkSafeNB responded to CBC in an email saying the plan to expand benefits mirrors changes to the Workers' Compensation Act.

"WorkSafeNB must ensure the assessment rate is sufficient to meet all incurred claim costs, associated administrative expenses and an amortization of the unfunded liability for potential future claims," said Beverly Stears, acting director of communications for WorkSafeNB.

In response to concerns over fire department cuts, Stears said "while we appreciate the challenges the increase may pose, WorkSafeNB cannot comment on potential actions that may be taken by the municipalities or rural communities."

The Firefighters' Compensation Act first came into effect in 2009. Rates for the disability fund have been frozen for the last five years.

There have been only a few claims made to the disability fund over the past couple of years, according to Murphy.

"Everyone agrees that benefits are important...but 55 per cent increase in one year in an economic climate such as that which is faced by municipalities ... is totally, totally out of line," Murphy said.

The union will be meeting with WorkSafeNB at the end of November, according to Murphy.

He said he's hopeful WorkSafeNB may be open to making the increase more gradual.