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Plans for a bawdy fundraiser at a suburban volunteer fire station led to a serious public relations problem and potential legal troubles. Prompt and strong action by fire district leaders prevented what might have developed into a serious problem.
The problem arose when the hose company that is assigned to the fire station scheduled a fundraising event it called “Catfight Babes.” According to published reports, the event would have scheduled barmaids tearing off each other’s clothes while wrestling in oil and chocolate syrup. Initial advertisements reportedly included numerous sexual references.
Not surprisingly, the planned event drew widespread and strong criticism, both from women firefighters and others. Such an event would be demeaning, and certainly would harm the precious public credibility that is critical to the success of community-based volunteer fire departments.
The fire district’s Board of Commissioners, which oversees the hose company’s station and five others, stepped in to block the event, threatening legal action if necessary. The commissioners, who are elected officials, voted unanimously to order that the event be canceled. When the event organizers initially refused to carry out the order, they were suspended.
The commissioners then threatened to pull apparatus from the station and to seek a legal injunction to prevent the event from taking place. An injunction is a court order that compels a party (in this case, the event organizers) to refrain from doing an act. It is used in situations such as this to prevent a future action that would be harmful, in contrast to an award of monetary damages, which is compensation for an injury that already has occurred.
If the commissioners had carried out their threatened actions, they would have effectively put the hose company out of business. However, the event was canceled and the station was allowed to continue its operations.
According to news reports, the commissioners acted, at least in part, because the fire district’s insurance company threatened to cancel its liability insurance policy if the fundraiser were held. The insurer cited its potential exposure to liability risk, which points out an important lesson for both leadership and the rank and file in the fire service. Both fire and EMS training emphasize the exposure to liability that comes with every emergency response. However, we need to recognize that every fire department activity, in the station or elsewhere, carries with it a liability risk. An event such as the one planned by that hose company certainly raises the potential for injury to members and/or guests, and the ensuing liability.
According to Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance (sponsored by the Better Business Bureau), there are no special legal requirements or restrictions regarding what kinds of events may be conducted for charitable fundraising events. Generally, any type of entertainment that is otherwise legal may be used as a fundraiser.
Perhaps more important than any legal rule, however, is what Weiner refers to as the “Front Page Rule.” When planning any fundraising activity, don’t do anything that you would not want to see on the front page of the local newspaper. The Oceanside case perfectly illustrates the consequences of breaking this rule.
There is little guidance on what is appropriate from national organizations that provide support to charitable groups. The National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), for example, does not offer guidance to its members for fundraising activities, although Executive Director Heather Schafer agrees that a basic set of fundraising “Dos and Don’ts” could be valuable. The BBB Wise Giving Alliance makes recommendations to charities (including fire departments) regarding financial disclosure and fundraising costs, but it does not provide any guidance regarding the kinds of events that charities should avoid using for fundraisers.