Volunteer Firefighters Face Expulsion From Union

John Gorman, a veteran career firefighter with the Arlington, Va. County Fire Department, has belonged to the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) for five years, but his union brothers want to expel him. His offense: Gorman works as a volunteer firefighter in nearby Prince Georges County.

Gorman says he isn't the only union member facing expulsion for volunteering. In addition to himself and three other Arlington County "two-hatter" firefighters, approximately 150 career firefighters who volunteer in Prince Georges County are on the IAFF's hit list.

"This is not anti-volunteer at all," counters the man leading the charge against Gorman, Thomas McEachin, president of Prince Georges County Local 1619. "The whole issue is the mistreatment of our membership by volunteers who are IAFF members."

Some of the volunteers in Prince Georges (PG) rise to positions of authority, and, according to McEachin, they are abusive with their union brothers who are career firefighters.

"If we don't do something the volunteers tell us to do, we are told to leave all our gear in a small box, or we're locked out of places and prevented from doing our jobs," complains McEachin.

As evidence that the conflict is not about volunteering, the president of the PG local says he offered to drop the whole matter if volunteers would agree not to work at a rank higher than the one they have as paid firefighters. The two-hatters rejected the compromise, according to McEachin.

"If you really want to volunteer, it shouldn't matter if you're a chief, should it?" he asks.

The two-hatter dispute is limited, at least for now, to the area surrounding the nation's capital. But concerns about homeland security in Washington, DC have broad resonance and the question of under what circumstances IAFF members should work as volunteer firefighters reveals divisions within the first responder community that could have national implications.

The constitution of IAFF prohibits union members from serving as volunteers, and it allows any member to file charges against another who violates the constitution, according to George Burke, a spokesman for the union.

"These rules are illegal, as they interfere with my client's constitutional right to freedom of association," argues attorney Adele Abrams, representing Gorman and a group of two-hatter defendants.

But the union counters that the same constitutional right to free association gives labor organizations the power to determine who belongs, and who doesn't.

The provision prohibiting volunteering is rarely enforced. Many union members work as volunteer firefighters, but usually they do this in all-volunteer outfits, thereby avoiding the problem of exercising authority over paid career firefighters.

Burke confirms the problem has arisen because of issues specific to Prince Georges County: some volunteer firefighters are exercising authority in a "less than honorable fashion."

Burke explains that the union has a democratic process that includes trial boards to review the charges, with the right to appeal. But those sitting in judgment on the trial board are to be the peers of the accused, and that raises a problem, at least in the nation's capital.

"My members are not going to do this," asserts Ray Sneed, president of the District of Columbia (DC) Fire Fighters Association. "There's no support in DC for the anti-volunteering law, and I believe it should be changed."

Although Sneed referred the charges to the union, which runs the trial boards, no action was taken before the 120-day deadline, possibly because of the difficulty of finding anyone in Washington willing to sit on the trial board.

The charges have been renewed, but Sneed says the second deadline is approaching and still no trial board has been set up.

Safety Concerns Divide Firefighters

Sneed believes PG County is trying to use volunteers as "pawns" in order to increase career position staffing levels, a charge McEachin vehemently denies. Sneed notes that after several firefighters died in the line of duty, he fought hard to ensure that in Washington, hook-and-ladder trucks cannot leave the station without at least five firefighters. In PG County, such a law does not exist, and sometimes trucks go out with only two people.

"That's not safe," comments Sneed. "PG County needs to address the safe staffing issue, but they need to do this in some other way, like through labor negations."

Burke argues that occupational health and safety concerns are a big reason the union is opposed to its members volunteering.

Volunteers risk losing benefits if they are killed while volunteering, and volunteers make it harder to negotiate "presumption laws" that protect the health and safety of all union members.

Burke says many states and municipalities currently have presumption laws, which stipulate that for firefighters, certain ailments are automatically presumed to be the result of repeated work-related exposures. Examples include some forms of cancer, as well as heart and lung diseases.

It's harder for the union to negotiate this kind of benefit when its members are volunteering. "Volunteers are exposing themselves to dangers outside of the community that will have to pay the benefits and workers compensation," Burke explains.

Gorman believes it is wrong for the union to expel him for serving the community. He stands to lose a $10,000 death benefit, a pension supplement, and other legal protections if he loses his union membership. If, on the other hand, Gorman stops volunteering, he would also lose death, pension, and tax benefits.

Given continuing homeland security concerns, this may not be a good time for the union to be discouraging its members from volunteering in the nation's capital.

"When the president of the United States is encouraging people to volunteer, it's very difficult for the International to say that if you volunteer you'll be kicked out of the labor organization," says Sneed.

McEachin admits that of the 150 two-hatters working in PG county, only 20 to 30 are abusing their authority.

Asked what he has to say to the other 120 firefighters who are guilty of nothing more than serving the community, McEachin is unyielding.

"If they would take care of those 20 or 30 we wouldn't be where we are today."

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