Albany, NY – City firefighters have been banned by their union from working as volunteers in communities where they live. The order, effective Feb. 1, is aimed partially at shielding taxpayers from covering costs of a firefighters hurt while volunteering.
The union’s president, Sam Fresina, couldn’t say Monday exactly how many members of the department the order would affect. But he said it was less than half of 75, the number that has been circulated.
“There are not a lot of people volunteering,” he said.
He sent the letter to all 234 members of the union informing them the executive board decided to enforce a bylaw adopted last year by the International Association of Firefighters, the parent organization, prohibiting volunteering.
“We decided to enforce it because the city of Albany is facing some tough financial times right now, and we are looking to do everything that we can to ease the financial stress,” Fresina said.
“Why is it fair for an Albany resident to take on the financial burden of someone putting themselves in danger by volunteering for another municipality?” he said.
If a firefighter were to get injured while volunteering, he also would lose time on his paid job.
If they refuse to resign from the volunteer company, they can’t be fired, he said. “Whatever happens would be up to the international.”
In the two weeks since the letter, not one firefighter has approached Fresina or leaders of the Albany Permanent Professional Firefighter Union, he said.
Pages of discussion on a local emergency responder Internet message board, have firefighters arguing it is an internal union matter and essentially could affect their ability to be in a better position to bargain with the city.
The edict barring volunteering reflects long-standing divisions within the firefighting community between career firefighters, who work full time for paid departments, and volunteers.
As volunteer firefighters have become harder to recruit and retain, firefighters unions have suggested that those positions should be paid. Increasing the number of paid jobs, incidentally, also would expand the unions’ influence.
Fresina didn’t want to get into that. “It’s a different subject,” he said, adding, “how many volunteer police officers do you see? How many volunteer DPW workers.” What importance do municipalities place on firefighters? he asked.
The tensions are heightened at a time when the faltering economy has spurred small cities with paid departments from Plattsburgh to Lockport to at least consider all or partial volunteer options. Some communities have both paid and volunteers such as city of Rensselaer and the town of Niskayuna.
David Quinn, chief administrative officer for the Firefighters Association of New York, or FASNY, said volunteering is a noble prerogative that dates to Colonial times and should be a personal choice.
“If you do have a paid firefighter living in a suburban community, they should have the choice,” said Quinn, who recently stepped down as South Schodack’s fire chief. “Are you telling them that they can’t protect their own property?”
Mirroring that response is the International Association of Fire Chiefs, a group for career and volunteer officials, which last fall issued a statement supporting “the rights of volunteer, career, or paid-on-call firefighters to serve multiple organizations or communities.”
As of now, the Albany department is down 21 positions, and under a hiring freeze by Mayor Jerry Jennings, to help balance the budget, it doesn’t appear those jobs will be filled anytime soon.
“We’re down 21 positions right now … we’re doing more with less, and our goal is to fill those 21 positions and get back to 260 so that we can more adequately protect the city,” Fresina said.
“This is nothing against volunteers,” he said. “This is simply us enforcing an international bylaw for the purpose of taking care of our residents. People in city of Albany pay our salaries, and it’s incumbent upon us to give them the best possible service that we can.”
Fresina said he has spoken to neighboring unions and was told they “don’t have an issue because they don’t have volunteers.”
Shawn Morse, a Cohoes firefighter and past president of that department’s union, said if volunteering “caused any problems in our organization, then we would take a stance but we have so few it hasn’t caused us any problems.”
Cohoes has four volunteers, he said, two of whom live outside the city and two of whom live in Cohoes and volunteer in neighboring communities.
Albany Fire Chief Robert Forezzi declined comment, saying it was a union thing and he hadn’t seen the letter.
Several local volunteer fire chiefs declined to take a position Monday, noting they weren’t looking to pick fights with their city counterparts.