Racy Fundraisers Can Cause Trouble

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.

Many volunteer fire departments and rescue squads (including my own) depend on financial support from the communities they serve. Weiner acknowledges that it can be difficult to gain attention in the midst of a sea of other charities. But, there are hundreds of kinds of fundraising activities that can be quite profitable, and far more appropriate than “Catfight Babes.” In 2000, the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA) published Funding Alternatives for Fire and EMS Services, a comprehensive guide to potential funding sources for fire departments of all types. It includes information on private-sector grants and foundation funding, and a state-by-state breakdown of available funding programs. (This valuable resource can be obtained for free through the USFA website at www.usfa.fema.gov.)

One of the great strengths of our American culture is the way in which communities voluntarily band together to take care of themselves and their neighbors. Nowhere is this more evident than in our system of volunteer fire departments, which serve much of the nation. Departments have come up with countless creative ways of raising support (both financial and other types). And, in good times and bad, Americans are remarkably generous in their support of their local fire departments. The nationwide outpouring of support for fire departments following the 9/11 attacks was simply an extension of the support we in the fire service have enjoyed for more than 250 years.

However, the fire service should not be sponsoring sexually oriented fundraising events such as this. The values and attitudes promoted by this type of event are wrong. The send a totally inappropriate message to the community that depends on us to meet their most urgent needs at times of crisis. No amount of money raised can overcome the damage to our credibility and public support that these events cause. We don’t need to stoop to the level of “Catfight Babes” in order to obtain the support we need from the communities that we serve.

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