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Maximizing Your Rights as a Volunteer Fire Department

MAXIMIZING Your Rights as a Volunteer Fire Department

by Mark J. Kovack, Senior Attorney, Westport, Connecticut office.

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 70 percent of America’s firefighters are volunteers, and 85 percent of the nation’s fire departments are all or mostly volunteer.  The NFPA estimates that this extraordinary service by volunteer firefighters saves municipalities and their tax paying citizens $139.8 billion per year in firefighting costs. “There is no force at the state level or at the federal level … that can provide a community with rescue, mitigation and recovery services like the fire and emergency services community,” said Denis Onieal as acting U.S. Fire Administrator. Yet, while 911 calls are surging in unprecedented numbers, Volunteer Fire Departments are struggling to retain firefighters. Ironically, this is often because of the failure by the very local governments benefitting from volunteer firefighting and emergency services to reasonably support the considerable costs inherent with the provision of those very voluntary services.

Fighting fires as a volunteer requires the same fire apparatus, protective gear, and fire and emergency equipment used by career firefighters. Volunteer firefighters undergo the same training as career firefighters. Unfortunately, fire apparatus—fire engines, rescues trucks, tankers, and the fuel and maintenance to operate and maintain them; protective gear—self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), personal protective equipment (PPE) and the like; and, fire and emergency equipment—jaws of life, hoses, nozzles, etc., are all, unavoidably, expensive.  It is impossible for a Volunteer Fire Department to take on the entire costs of operations and equipment (even with strong local charitable support), and to adequately protect both the community and safety of its own volunteers, without reasonable financial assistance from the governments benefitting from the provision of those volunteer firefighting and emergency services.

Fortunately, Volunteer Fire Departments can benefit from several protections afforded to them under Connecticut law, if the Company only knows what they are and how to utilize the same. These rights can be found in state statutes, municipal charters and ordinances, and contract law. Urban Thier & Federer offers substantial experience in maximizing the potential benefits and protections offered to Volunteer Fire Departments under Connecticut law.

Connecticut General Statutes Section 7-301 authorizes a town to “enter into an agreement with any volunteer fire company or companies within the town for the protection thereof from fire.” Further, Section 7-301 recognizes the authority of “any town, city, borough or incorporated fire district” to appropriate “funds to a volunteer fire company or companies for services rendered or to be rendered within the confines of such town, city, borough or incorporated fire district,” provided the town, city, borough or incorporated fire district deems it in the public interest to do so.  Thus, if you operate as a Volunteer Fire Department or “company” within any given Connecticut municipality, it is likely that you are already a party to an agreement, whether written, oral, or implied, with that municipality, and/or are subject to an ordinance and/or municipal charter recognizing or authorizing your volunteer firefighting and emergency services. If you don’t have a written agreement with your local government, you should seek to have one.

At Urban Thier & Federer, we have extensive experience negotiating, drafting, and enforcing fire protection and emergency services agreements with municipalities on behalf of Volunteer Fire Departments.

A written fire protection and emergency services agreement, if properly crafted, can be of enormous benefit to a Volunteer Fire Department. The Department can address and lock in rights and obligations concerning, among other things, the fair and equal treatment of volunteer firefighters vis-à-vis career firefighters, if any, operating within the same municipality;  fair and reasonable operating and capital financial support, including (1) annual budget allocations in an amount sufficient to pay the volunteer department’s costs for the operation as a volunteer fire department, (2)  monetary appropriations to purchase equipment, apparatus and services necessary for the operation of the volunteer fire department, and (3) paying costs associated with maintaining the volunteer fire station and fire apparatus; ownership and operational control over privately owned volunteer fire houses, including terms and conditions regarding municipal use of those firehouses and/or the assignment of career firefighters to the volunteer stations; standard operating guidelines (SOGs) for volunteer and/or volunteer/career combined departments; chain of command, including incident command under the National Incident Management System (NIMS) protocols; mutual aid agreements; state and federal grants; training; volunteer tax relief; and, dispute resolution.  The foregoing is a mere sampling of critically important issues that we can help address on behalf of volunteer fire departments and companies.

If you already have a contract with a local government, we can review the same to make sure that your municipal counterpart is abiding by all its obligations and help ensure that you are not leaving anything on the table.

Urban Thier & Federer also offers litigation services in support of Volunteer Fire Departments, including: (1) holding a city government liable for failing to honor its funding obligations under municipal law [see Turn of River Fire Dpt., Inc. v Stamford, 2009 WL 2872854 (Conn. Super. Ct. 2009) (holding that the sum of $40,000 was “insufficient” to pay Turn of River’s costs of operation as a matter of law, that the City illegally manipulated its budgetary process in breach of its charter and fire services contract, and entering judgment in the form of an injunction directing the City to immediately issue a check to the volunteer fire department in the amount of $287,762)]; (2) forcing a city to recognize and honor volunteer fire service agreements that the city claimed had been superseded by municipal charter amendments [see  Turn of River Fire Department, Inc, et al.  v. City of Stamford, 2013 WL 6989423 (Conn. Super. 2013) (upholding three volunteer fire departments’ respective written fire service agreements with the city and rejecting  the city’s assertion that the agreements were voided or rescinded by the enactment of certain charter amendments, holding that “in implementing the charter amendments, the City must do so in a manner consistent with its obligations under the [fire service] management agreements”)]; and, (3) having the Superior Court enter judgment affirming a substantial arbitration award in favor of a volunteer fire department under its fire service agreement with the city [see Springdale Fire Co., Inc. v. City of Stamford, Docket No. FST-CV-18-6034570-S (awarding $132,806.00 in damages; ordering the City to provide the Plaintiff with a replacement pumper engine that is less than 25 years old and has been upgraded (if necessary) to incorporate as many features as reasonably possible of current NFPA standards; ordering the City to expend at least $165,000.00 to renovate the volunteers’ bathroom and kitchen, and to repave the parking lot, and to provide other needed maintenance and repairs to the Plaintiff’s volunteer fire station; and, ordering the City to provide the Plaintiff, promptly, with up to six sets of PPE)].

It is clear, therefore, that exercising a Volunteer Fire Department’s rights to have a written agreement with the municipality it serves and/or enforcing those and other rights under the law can be of considerable benefit to the volunteer department or company.  Volunteer firefighters provide immeasurable fire, emergency and safety services to our communities. Volunteers should not be forced to do so with antiquated, old, inadequate or unsafe fire apparatus and equipment. Municipal governments must treat volunteer fire fighters fairly.

Volunteer Fire Departments enjoy certain rights and protections under law. Urban Thier & Federer would be honored to help you maximize those rights and protections. Contact us today to see how we can help you.