National fire organizations are watching with interest the Michigan House of Representatives Local Government Committee's debate on HB 4624, a bill that would prevent collective bargaining between a public employer and a bargaining representative of its employees from prohibiting an employee volunteering for or obtaining employment with another fire department. Rep. Joseph Haveman testified HB 4624 was introduced in response to the city of Grand Rapids barring its career firefighters from volunteering during off-duty hours.
Much of the argument is based on a provision in Grand Rapids' labor deal — a four-year pact prohibiting firefighters from responding to calls elsewhere on their off days, effective in 2014. National organizations are watching what happens in Michigan, as it is an issue affecting 27,734 career firefighters nationwide who serve as volunteer firefighters during off-duty hours, according to a 2007 Government Accountability Office report.
The fire service refers to these individuals as two-hatters, and they often are pressured by their union or employer to quit volunteering, said Dave Finger, director of government relations for the NVFC. Instead, firefighters should have the freedom to volunteer.
“Firefighters should be able to volunteer or work for multiple departments,” Finger said about the NVFC policy statement on the issue. “If you are a firefighter, you should be able to volunteer for who you like ... that’s the right folks should have.”
Prohibiting a firefighter from volunteering also is illegal based on a U.S. Court of appeals for the Fourth Circuit case that held volunteer members of fire, rescue and EMS squads are not considered employees for purposes of the Fair Labor Standards Act, specifically stating that “the section plainly eliminates any impediment to individuals who wish to volunteer their time and talents to public agencies for civic, charitable and humanitarian purposes”
Finger said the NVFC isn’t lobbying for legislation right now. However, it is important organizations follow SAFER provisions that prevent employers from banning personnel from volunteering on off-duty hours. Grand Rapids anti-volunteer provision led NVFC Chairman Philip Stittleburg to send a letter to Elizabeth Harman, assistant administrator of the Grants Program Directorate at, asking her office to investigate whether the terms of a the Grand Rapids collective-bargaining agreement violated federal law.
In question was the Grand Rapids Fire Department grant through the SAFER program for more than $2 million to pay salaries and benefits for career firefighters. Under law, firefighters hired using SAFER funds cannot be discriminated against for or prevented from volunteering their time, Finger said.
“SAFER funds should not be used to support fire departments that target firefighters who volunteer during off-duty hours in their hometowns,” Stittleburg wrote in the letter. “The purpose of this program is to improve fire department staffing levels nationwide. There is no justification for federal taxpayers subsidizing the operations of a local fire department that is demonstrably working counter to that goal.”
The Grand Rapids anti-volunteering provision in the bargaining agreement didn’t go into effect immediately last year but, “I suspect they didn’t want it to happen when their SAFER grant became active,” Finger said.
Several individuals testified in support of HB 4624, including Chief Michael Keefe, Allendale Fire Department, and George Scrimger, past president of the Michigan State Firemen’s Association. Mark Docherty, the president of the Michigan Professional Fire Fighters Union, spoke in opposition to HB 4624.