Rules On Volunteer Activities Raise Legal Concerns

A nasty fight is brewing between the firefighters’ union and volunteer firefighters. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) and several locals, are trying to restrict members from serving as volunteer firefighters in their off-duty time...


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It is reasonable that a private organization may set criteria for membership. The volunteer restriction is consistent with the IAFF goal of promoting the interests of paid, full-time firefighters and paramedics. And, of course, it is the role of government, and not private organizations, to watch out for the public interest. Determining whether a restriction is in the public interest is a highly political debate, as illustrated by the heated rhetoric that surrounded the Connecticut legislation.

Balanced against this, however, are at least two important legal and public policy concerns. First, there is a basic individual freedom to do whatever we please on our own time. Second, a restriction on volunteering could be expensive to jurisdictions with limited budgets. Further is the reality that the union’s action carries with it, to some extent at least, an implicit government sanction. In many departments, mandatory union membership is written into the collective bargaining agreement.

Undoubtedly, this controversy will end up in court. Groups such as the National Right to Work Campaign are eager to see the matter litigated. The outcome may depend on how the case is framed. Indeed, the result may vary from state to state. But, the courts may well determine whether union restrictions on outside volunteer activities are legal on the basis of whether any significant state action is required.


Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.