Friday, November 28, 2008

Fire Union to Chiefs: “Don’t meddle!”

Union and Chiefs Bump Heads on Two-Hatter Issue
Washington, DC (November 28, 2008) -- It’s been a bone of contention for decades – career firefighters also serving as volunteers in their home communities. This “two-hatter” concept has been a godsend to volunteer departments, who benefit from the expertise and daytime availability of well-trained, paid municipal firefighters. But in recent years the union representing North America's paid firefighters has really turned up the heat on those who have chosen to serve in a dual capacity.

The supporting position for the International Association of Fire Fighters is simple; that secondary employment – including volunteering -- of IAFF members as a firefighter or other public safety worker is wrong, unsafe and against the IAFF's constitution. For the most part, IAFF locals have turned a blind eye to the practice. But with the volunteer fire service losing tens of thousands of members to poor retention and recruitment (see Last One Standing) these “two hatters” are essentially permitting volunteer agencies to operate without the need for hiring paid staff. Something to consider with the economy and job situation as it is.

On the Volunteer side of the issue, administrators cite the US Constitution as the governing law in this thorny matter. In a November 3rd statement, the International Association of Fire Chiefs wrote, “(We) support the rights of each individual to choose to serve in any capacity, whether in a volunteer, paid, or paid-on-call position.”

The IAFC statement also swings a heavy axe at the IAFF’s embargo. “The IAFC would recommend that no membership organization – volunteer, trade, or paid – should restrict membership and the right to serve in multiple organizations or communities.” Needless to say, IAFF’s DC-based headquarters was quick to respond to the IAFC challenge.

IAFF General President, Harold Schaitberger
"This is not an issue that welcomes or warrants an opinion from the IAFC," said Harold A. Schaitberger, General President of the IAFF in an open letter issued on Tuesday of this week. As reported on, Schaitberger went on to call the statement an attempt to "meddle" in the IAFF's internal affairs.

Although I’ve been unable to find supporting statistics, a great many career personnel who I know also serve as volunteers in the communities in which they live. But it’s no big shakes here in Delaware, where career personnel total only about 200 members, represented by 3 IAFF locals.

But consider Long Island, home to hundreds of volunteer fire departments, and most of FDNY’s 14,000 members. Long Island fire departments have long prided themselves as being fully-volunteer. But reality is that many within these "volunteer ranks" also carry the FDNY shield in their wallet. You’ll also find paid apparatus drivers, who are listed by their employer departments as janitors or maintenance personnel.

“If it weren’t for the ‘two-hatters,’’ one Nassau County administrator told me, ‘daytime response would be in a shambles.”

Under the IAFF’s membership rules, a union member agrees not to accept secondary employment as an emergency responder, unless the position is represented by another affiliated local. And it’s the responsibility of the locals – not the International – to enforce the “two-hatter” regulation. But few have chosen to do so.

The State of Connecticut recently passed legislation that codifies the right of career firefighters to volunteer during off-duty hours. Development of the law was prompted by a 2003 agreement between the City of Hartford and the Hartford Firefighters’ Local prohibiting city firefighters from volunteering in their hometowns during personal time. Within days, Mayor Eddie Perez was inundated with letters from volunteer agencies, citizenry and the National Volunteer Fire Council demanding that the agreement be rescinded.

Then National Volunteer Fire Council Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg wrote to Perez noting that the Hartford ruling would have wide reaching implications, one that would affect volunteerism nationally.

“The firefighter union’s organized campaign against the volunteer fire service is aimed at destroying our ranks in the hope of increasing union membership and power,” Stittleburg wrote.

Many in the Fire-Rescue services agree with Chairman Stittleburg’s belief that these actions are simply a power play by the International Association of Fire Fighters. That may be so, but the IAFF is also following through on one of its primary missions – and that is to protect its members. Case in point: The 1999 line-of-duty deaths of two Fort Worth, TX career firefighters, who had responded to a church fire as a members of their local volunteer department, River Oaks.
Phillip Dean and Brian Collins were killed instantly when the roof of the well involved Lake Worth, TX church collapsed on them and 20 year-old volunteer firefighter Garry Sanders.

Following their burials, the Fort Worth Local 440's Pension Board denied the families of Dean and Collins death benefits because they weren’t working for the Fort Worth Fire Department at the time. The Pension Board suggested that the burden of caring for the families lie with the suburban department for which they volunteered. Sadly, at the time, the agency did not carry insurance for those members who became injured or killed. The surviving familes relied on federal death benefits, which topped out at whopping $55,000 in 1999.
For me, the thought of not providing for my family, if I were to perish in service to the community, is plenty enough reason to not volunteer. It’s quite possible that neither Dean nor Collins knew that they had no benefit coverage while serving at River Oaks.

The next step for the IAFF is to lobby at the federal level in an effort to persuade lawmakers to legislate career firefighters to stay at home when off-duty and out of volunteer firehouses. If successful, the volunteer fire service -- especially departments surrounding large municipalities -- would be dealt a lousy hand. The chips would go to the public, who will be forced to decide on how much they're willing to ante up to protect their communities.

Personal note: I’ve got no gripe with the concept of “two hatters”, although when I compare it to a plumber returning home at night, only to rush off and fix someone’s drain for no fee, the thought is a bit bizarre. However, I do have a deep concern for “two hatters” as well as volunteers who serve in agencies that provides little or no benefits in case of injury.

If you decide to don that second helmet, make it a point to determine what benefits exist for you and your family, should tragedy strike on the fireground. My bet is that you’ll find you have poor coverage at best. That’s when you should hang up that second lid and take up golf.

- International Assn. of Fire Chiefs

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Federal Safety Vest Requirement Goes Into Effect

Everywhere, USA (November 24, 2008) -- A new provision from the Federal Highway Administration goes into effect today requiring firefighters and EMS personnel to wear flourescent safety vests when operating at emergency scenes along nationally funded roadways.

The vests must meet the Performance Class II or III requirements of the American National Standards Institute/International Safety Equipment Association (ANSI/ISEA) 107-2004 publication. ANSI requires that vests be fluorescent yellow-green, orange-red, or red background material with 360 degree retroflective visibility.

A provision was recently added to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control that exempted Firefighters from wearing vests, who were directly engaged in fire suppression as the vest material could ignite or melt if exposed to flame.

A full range of vests are available online at

Although the FHWA rule applies only to responses on federal aid highways, most fire administrators agree that firefighters and EMS personnel responding to any roadside incident wear MUTCD-approved safety vests.

While there is no federal funding set aside specifically to help local agencies purchase safety vests, my personal request is that local fraternal groups such as the Lions, Jaycees and Shriners consider taking the initiative to help local fire-rescue agencies outfit their members with this vitally important safety equipment.

photo courtesy

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Brea Fire/Triangle Complex Fire

Originally uploaded by NEWSMAN91

This wildfire in Corona, California is finally contained, but not before scorching more than 30,000 acres and destroying or damaging at least 259 homes. To place this in perspective for East Coast firefighters, the Philadelphia Fire Department loses about 259 homes each YEAR.