Small fire stations losing volunteers

Many small towns face a dearth of emergency responders as cities forbid their crews from serving other towns in their spare time.

Fire Chief Joe Kochanek has a hard enough time making sure his volunteer department in this small town on the western bank of the Connecticut River stays fully staffed.

Then the news from nearby Hartford hit.

In a new contract with its career firefighters, the city forbids them to volunteer at their hometown fire stations. The Hartford chief cites health and safety concerns. Chief Kochanek, who will lose two of his most qualified men, cites indignation.

"The reasons they're giving for doing this are totally, totally wrong," says Kochanek, standing arms akimbo in front of the shiny yellow trucks, parked in the new brick firehouse. "The fires in Hartford are no different from the fires here. If you say you're going to get hurt in Rocky Hill, what makes you think you're not going to get hurt in Hartford?"

With Kochanek in the thick of it, the town of Rocky Hill and several of its suburban neighbors have launched a fight to try to get the provision removed from the Hartford contract. They contend it violates the firefighters' First Amendment rights, and just as important, the spirit of volunteerism on which so much of small-town life is dependent.

Their ire is shared by others in almost a dozen other states from Virginia to Oregon, where big-city departments are making it harder for career firefighters to work the hoses on their hometown ladder trucks. Indeed, it's turned into a morality tale of sorts about the challenges of modern-day civic life.

For departments in cash-strapped cities like Hartford, the new provision is a way to help ensure their firefighters are only in the line of danger when on duty - a move they see as saving in overtime pay and workers' compensation benefits. But for small towns dependent on a steadily shrinking base of volunteers, it's become a threat to the very existence of their fire departments.

"Recruitment and retention of volunteers is often the No. 1 challenge," says Craig Sharman, director of government relations at the National Volunteer Fire Council in Washington, which represents volunteer fire services across the country. "There's been a 15 percent drop in the number of volunteers nationwide in the last 20 years, and these kinds of policies just make it more difficult."

The big-city view

In Hartford, Chief Charles Teale understands those challenges. But he has his own problems to deal with - including a shrinking budget in an aging city with growing needs.

He's the one who proposed the new change that forbids what's come to be called "two hatters." His goal is to cut down on overtime costs by diminishing "the tendency in our department for people to take time off."

Currently, it's estimated that about 80 of Hartford's 340 career firefighters are also volunteers. While Chief Teale didn't single them out for taking excessive time off, this is his thinking: If a firefighter works a 48-hour shift in Hartford, then goes home Wednesday and puts on his volunteer hat to deal with hometown emergencies, he or she may be too tired to work the next day.

"They're going to be inclined to call in on Thursday and say, 'Sorry, I'm unable to make it to work. Give me a sick day or a vacation day,' " he says.

"Then I have to fill that person's place with an overtime person at time and a half."

Volunteer firefighters don't buy that argument. Back at the Rocky Hill Fire Station, Kochanek notes that "75 percent" of career firefighters have second jobs - some of which are dangerous, such as operating heavy machinery.

"The contract doesn't forbid them from doing that, only serving their communities," he says.

Teale counters that even operating heavy machinery isn't as dangerous as fighting fires. He believes that it's simply "too much for one person" to handle two jobs as dangerous as firefighting.

You won't hear any argument on that from leaders of the Hartford Fire Fighters Association Local 760 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. "In our business you take more risks than some guy that's washing windows," says Scott Brady, the secretary/treasurer of the union. "Both are working at heights, but a guy's who's trying to rescue someone from a burning building is going to do more dangerous things to succeed."

Time to regroup

Supporters of the Hartford provision also contend the local departments are exaggerating the impact on them. The contract provision doesn't go into effect until 2008, giving the volunteer departments time to replace the men or women that they're losing.

Mr. Brady adds that career firefighters are welcome to continue volunteering in the training of others - they just can't volunteer to fight fires.

Down in Washington, Mr. Sharman has heard all these arguments before. In many places, he contends the unions try to discourage "two hatters" as a way to force some smaller towns to shift from volunteer to paid services, which can then be unionized. "We've been contacted by a large [number] of firefighters around the country who were pressured to stop volunteering or be reprimanded or kicked out of the union," he says.

The National Volunteer Fire Council is urging Hartford officials to reconsider the contract. Several towns surrounding Hartford have gone to the Connecticut legislature urging lawmakers to outlaw such provisions.

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