A volunteer department in western Illinois proudly displays the phrase “Professionally Staffed by Volunteers” on its apparatus. A nearby department is smarting from the loss of a member who was prohibited from volunteering by his career department.
I thought the two-hatter debate occured only on the East Coast. But it seems to be moving west, becoming a common concern in Michigan and now in Illinois. The International Association of Fire Fighters supports clauses in employment contracts that prohibit union members from volunteering for another department in their off-duty hours. A union firefighter can be fired for volunteering in his or her own community — a restriction that could close the doors on any potential SAFER Grant applications.
How many volunteer departments trained firefighters who ultimately went on to career departments? The answer is in the thousands. But these same firefighters are unable to work in some of the departments where they live. A career department in a Chicago suburb not only prohibits its firefighters from working as volunteers, it also requires its them to register with the department their off-duty employment.
The age-old thinking career firefighters who volunteer in their communities eliminate the needs for those volunteer departments to hire full-time responders. But is that the only reason?
Joe Pawlis, a union representative in Illinois, explained that the union supports and favors full-time firefighters. Career firefighters must pass background checks and physical agility tests, and meet training and education requirements, which aren't always offered by volunteer departments. Pawlis told of a responder who could not pass the physical agility test to join a career department; volunteering allowed him to serve as a firefighter.
“Firefighting isn’t a hobby, and we are committed to the job as well as to the training that comes with it,” he said. “It’s about the quality of employees that we’re looking at,” Pawlis added.
Firefighters face dangers beyond the incident scene; research shows higher rates of cancer and other illnesses in firefighters, which has prompted more NFPA standards and presumptive laws. Do volunteers face fewer risks because they have other full-time occupations? Do career firefighters accept that the risks are just part of the job? There are no easy answers.
I recently spent some time at several volunteer and paid-on-call fire departments in communities that would have no coverage without volunteer firefighters. But they don't get to take advantage of the knowledge and expertise that career firefighters could bring. This is a problem that will not be solved quickly or easily.
I once volunteered answering phones in a surgical waiting room at a local hospital. The hospital workers didn’t like the volunteers; they felt that many of the volunteers were taking jobs that could be paid positions. Perhaps this problem is more widespread than we think.
Volunteering for community service is a very American way of life. Why limit an American’s opportunity to give back to his/her community? If your full-time job can benefit your local community, why not? Yet I can’t imagine a career firefighter watch his neighbor’s house burn as he stands by with his hands in his pockets.
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