N.S. fire departments raise hundreds of thousands with online raffle
'It's a blessing for everybody. It has changed people's lives'
As the COVID-19 pandemic keeps many halls closed across Nova Scotia, fire departments have turned online for community support — and they're bringing in more than ever before.
The Nova Scotia Firefighters 50-50 weekly draw has been ongoing since last June, organized by the Amherst Firefighters Association.
What began with just eight services has grown to more than 250 departments and groups around Nova Scotia, like Halifax Fire Pipes & Drums and Nova Scotia Firefighters' Burn Treatment Society.
"It's a blessing for everybody," said Andrew Wallis, one of the raffle organizers with the Amherst Firefighters Association, which includes all of Amherst's volunteer fire members plus honorary positions. "It has changed people's lives."
The weekly raffle has recently been raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for every draw, where half the pot goes to the winning ticket holder.
Rather than using actual tickets, Wallis said they decided last spring to use the Rafflebox online platform when they were searching for a no-contact way to raise money.
People can buy anywhere from one ticket for $5 to 100 tickets for $50. They can name a specific fire department to benefit.
The participating services get 35 per cent of their ticket proceeds, paid out quarterly. A Facebook page set up to gather attention around the draw regularly shares photos of new breathing masks, head lamps, thermal cameras, fire suits and other equipment departments have been able to buy with these funds.
As far as he can see, Wallis said their 50-50 is the largest in Canada when it comes to online weekly raffles.
"This is groundbreaking," he said. "This is the most successful one that goes across the country every week."
The system is a win-win-win, Wallis said, because not only is it great for the firefighters and winners who walk away with a big cheque, but it impacts entire communities that will benefit from gear or hall upgrades.
As of Saturday, the largest draw happened a few months ago on New Year's Eve, when the pot totalled $461,595. The winner walked away with $230,798.
While the departments aren't seeing instant wins that large, many say having regular income from ticket sales makes a big difference.
Wallis said the raffle has made the most impact in rural areas where volunteer departments, which receive far less funding from counties or small municipalities, are fundraising money they never "would have dreamed of."
Recently, Wallis was told by one department that it would have taken it two years of community breakfasts to raise the money it did in one week.
In Albert Bridge, a rural eastern Cape Breton community between Sydney and Louisbourg, the volunteer fire department will also soon be able buy things it couldn't normally afford.
Chief Michael Hilliard estimates an average of about $900 a week in ticket profits over the past few months. All the department has to do is make some social media posts a couple times a week reminding community members to buy tickets.
"It's wonderful for every department involved. I mean, it's been so hard with the last year, with the restrictions and with quarantining, to be able to do any sort of fundraising," Hilliard said.
"It's given everybody a chance."
Hilliard said the original goal was about $100 per week.
He said it is amazing to see Albert Bridge consistently among the top 20 in overall ticket sales around the province. While the department gets an operating grant from the Cape Breton Regional Municipality every year, Hilliard said that's quickly used up by insurance and equipment.
Thanks to the funds, Hilliard said the department has purchased new breathing apparatus and is saving to replace a 22-year-old Chevy Suburban.
The truck pulls the boat used for water rescues, and carries extra firefighters to calls. But Hilliard said the 50-50 fundraising has given them the freedom to go a step above another truck, and look for a used light-rescue vehicle.
"It's going to make our work a lot easier. It's going to make our work a lot safer," Hilliard said.
Looking ahead, Wallis said he's hopeful the 50-50 will continue for years to come, as long as people keep supporting it and their lottery licence is renewed.
Even before the pandemic, bingo nights and fire hall dances didn't bring in this kind of steady revenue for fire departments, Wallis said.