City Tells Firefighters Volunteering Not Allowed

Union chief sees double standard on charity projects

Question: When is volunteering a bad idea? Answer: When the city says so, that's when. At least that's what the answer sounds like to some members of the Austin Fire Department, whose decision to volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, building a house near AFD's Eastside Station No. 5, got the official boot last week. According to Austin Association of Professional Firefighters President Mike Martinez, firefighters working all three shifts at No. 5, near East 12th and Webberville, voted unanimously to lend a hand and help Habitat build a new house near the station on Saturdays, while on duty and between calls, until the project is finished. It was a perfect setup, they thought, because there's often "downtime" at the station on Saturday – not a lot of training or maintenance to do – and would offer a perfect chance to give back to the neighborhood they serve. And so it went for a couple of weeks – at 8am the firefighters loaded into their truck and headed for the job site, where they worked until 5pm, between calls for service. That is, until last week, when Assistant Chief George Blackmore delivered the bad news: According to the city's legal department, the volunteer effort was "not authorized" and could not continue. The problem is twofold, said Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza. First, there's the "liability" issue that could arise if one of the firefighters was "hurt while on the job but not necessarily while [performing] their typical function." Second – and this is the "bigger" issue, Garza said – is the question of "precedent." By having city employees working on projects that are not necessarily of a "direct public use" the city runs the risk of having to hold back a flood of other projects that might benefit from the manpower of city resources. In other words, the city would have to be in the business of picking and choosing projects and run the risk of "getting the black eye" if projects are turned down. For example, Garza said, what happens if the firefighters decide they want to help Habitat, but then decide they don't want to volunteer with some other group to pick up trash in the neighborhood on a hot day? There are a lot of worthy causes out there, Garza said, that could certainly use the help, but the city can't be in the "business of building houses, or of building parks, with city resources." Moreover, since the firefighters would be on duty, working for the city while building the Habitat house, Garza said he isn't sure that you could categorize their labors as purely voluntary.

Martinez disagrees. No. 5's efforts were purely voluntary, he said, and he doesn't understand how the firefighters' agreement to help out in the 'hood they serve is really any different from the myriad of the city's other charitable undertakings – like the firefighters' annual Fill the Boot campaign during which on-duty firefighters collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, or the annual police department-led Blue Santa program, when on-duty firefighters – often riding in city-owned fire trucks – help deliver food and gifts to needy families. Those are great programs, Martinez said, and he doesn't see how they're any different – or pose any fewer liability problems – than the station-organized volunteer home-building project. "They were simply trying to give back to the community," he said. (Just last week an editorial in the daily stung the firefighters for allegedly not caring enough for the communities they serve.) But Garza says the MDA campaign and the Blue Santa campaigns are different – if only because the city has been involved in those programs for a long time. The MDA effort is a "nationwide" campaign and something the "city has agreed to," Garza said, while Blue Santa is a city program "that we've been intimately involved with" for a long time." It's not that the city thinks the firefighters had a "bad idea," he said, "but it's not something the city … wants to devote resources to."

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