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Abuses and Usurpations

Saturday, November 1, 1997

"We cherish our citizen volunteers," said President Clinton at the Philadelphia summit on volunteerism in April. "Citizen service is the story of our more perfect union."

Don’t tell that to Bob Chaney. A professional firefighter for Baltimore County, Maryland, he’s also the president of the volunteer fire company in his home town of Kingsville. Now, thanks to labor regulations promulgated by the Clinton administration’s Labor Department, Chaney and more than 200 professional firefighters and emergency medical workers in Baltimore County have been told that they can’t volunteer to douse fires or provide emergency medical help in their own communities.

Chaney, 40, has been a volunteer fireman since he was 16. "I’ve been volunteering to save lives all my adult life," Chaney laments. "If my neighbor’s house is on fire, I’m going to jump in a car to go put it out." Suddenly, though, he’s not allowed to. The no-volunteering rule "takes away my rights to do something I’ve been doing for years."

Bill Wiley has lost his freedom, too. He can still do paperwork for the Liberty Road Volunteer Fire Company in Randallstown, Maryland, where he’s captain of the squad. But he can’t go on rescue calls if he wants to keep his job as a paid Baltimore County firefighter and paramedic. Says Wiley, who also began his rescue career as a volunteer, "Never did I think I would see the day when helping people was considered the wrong thing to do."

A third of the county’s volunteer firehouses have lost their chief officers, and hundreds of calls for help have had to be passed off to other stations. The Middle River Rescue Dive Team was gutted, losing six of its 10 members. Before the Labor Department’s order, many stations relied on career firefighters to act as drivers, a position that requires extensive training; now they have lost the personnel essential for getting firetrucks on the road.

The culprit in this assault on freedom and common sense is the Clinton administration, which has misinterpreted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). To prevent supervisors from coercing their employees, the FLSA prohibits workers from doing unpaid work for their employers. In 1993, Labor Department officials wrongly construed this commonsense rule to mean that professional firefighters were prohibited from volunteering for companies that don’t pay their wages.

The Labor Department backed a complaint filed by the firefighters union of Montgomery County, Maryland, a chapter of the AFL-CIO-affiliated International Association of Firefighters. The union argued that career firefighters were losing overtime wages because of colleagues who volunteered at private, community-funded firehouses on their days off. Invoking the FLSA, the Clinton administration backed the union demand that counties pay overtime to firefighters who volunteer. Faced with the threat of huge overtime costs, Montgomery County ordered its paid firemen to stop working for volunteer companies, as did dozens of other mixed urban–rural counties around the country that have both professional and volunteer fire departments.

In Montgomery County, professional and volunteer companies sometimes share the same firehouses. So it appeared at first that the labor ruling would not affect jurisdictions like Baltimore County, where volunteer companies buy their own firehouses and buildings, purchase their own trucks, pay their own insurance, and enact their own bylaws. (The only connections to county government are training funds and annual fuel subsidies.) Chief Wiley is fond of explaining: "It’s my fire engine and I do what I want to do with it. I don’t need the county’s permission."

No more. Baltimore County continued to allow volunteering until Local 1311 of the IAFF filed a complaint of its own. In May 1997, fearful that it would be liable for overtime back pay if the Labor Department eventually ruled in favor of the union, the county pre-emptively forbade professional firefighters from volunteering to fight fires.

Career firefighters are often the backbone of a volunteer squad, providing direction and training to young volunteers. Their experience is invaluable when lives are at stake, and their schedules allow them to volunteer on weekdays when other volunteers cannot. Without this support, many volunteer firehouses are essentially out of commission on weekdays.

And the problem is not limited to Maryland: Volunteer firehouses all over the country are scrambling. About 20 percent of America’s firehouses are already affected by the Labor Department’s ruling in Montgomery County. That number could swell if the Labor Department sides with the union in the Baltimore County case.

This bulwark of independent community voluntarism is threatened by a regulatory state gone amok. There are 1.2 million volunteer firefighters in America, providing about $20 billion in services--all with minimal taxpayer subsidy.

The emperor Nero would approve: While communities struggle to put out real fires, the Clinton administration continues to fiddle for political approval from its friends in the unions.