NVFC Asks FEMA to Examine Whether Anti-volunteer Provision in Labor Agreement Violates Federal Law

On March 20, National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC) Chairman Philip C. Stittleburg sent a letter to Elizabeth Harman, Assistant Administrator of the Grants Program Directorate at the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), asking that her office look into whether the terms of a new collective bargaining agreement that prevents career firefighters in the City of Grand Rapids (MI) from volunteering as firefighters during off-duty hours violate federal law.

The Grand Rapids Fire Department (GRFD) received a grant through FEMA’s Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) program for more than $2 million last June to help pay for salaries and benefits for GRFD’s career firefighters. Under law, firefighters “hired” using SAFER funds cannot be discriminated against for or prevented from volunteering on their own time.

Applicants for SAFER hiring grants are required to indicate whether they have a policy in place to ensure that career firefighters are allowed to volunteer during off-duty hours and explain how it is implemented. If no such policy exists, departments are to adopt such a policy and describe how it will be implemented. The NVFC is asking that FEMA follow up with GRFD to make sure that protections towards career firefighters who volunteer during off-duty hours are being upheld consistent with statements made in the department’s application.

“SAFER funds should not be used to support fire departments that target firefighters who volunteer during off-duty hours in their hometowns,” said Stittleburg 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 NVFC was made aware of GRFD’s anti-volunteer policy in February from an e-mail sent through a reporting tool on the NVFC’s web site that was established in 2009 to give emergency responders whose right to volunteer is being threatened a way to contact the Volunteer Advocacy Committee directly. The e-mail was from a member of a volunteer fire department outside Grand Rapids that stands to lose multiple firefighters when GRFD’s policy goes into effect.

In a survey of 16,919 fire departments that submitted an application for FY 2006 funding through the Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program, the Department of Homeland Security identified a total of 27,734 career firefighters who serve as volunteer firefighters during off-duty hours. The results of the survey were published in a  Government Accountability Office study in 2007.

The NVFC advocates the rights of volunteer, career, or paid-on-call firefighters to serve multiple organizations or communities. Read the full  NVFC statement on the right to volunteer.