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Date last updated: Thursday, January 4, 12:12 PST

Firing a Volunteer

There comes a time in each department when for one reason or another they would be better off without Joe Blow. While some may think it is impossible, you can fire a volunteer. It is also possible to turn down an application, but both firing and hiring are sensitive issues.

Lets start with the basics. Any decision to hire or fire needs to be free of discrimination. This includes race, sex, creed, sexual preference, and age. This also means you cannot fire or not hire someone due to you ‘not liking’ them for whatever reason. Just because Joe Blow beat you in card game, does not mean you can eliminate him.

Age is an interesting point. Laws vary by state, but you can usually set a minimum age, but not a maximum age. While I have seen many bylaws that state a member must be between 18-55, to discriminate against someone over 55 is illegal. The debate goes that someone over 55, or 60, or whatever age, wouldn’t want to, or be able to, fight fires. In reality, there are many people over the age of 55 that are in better shape then most of us. The determination of a firefighters fitness for duty should not be his age, but his capabilities.

So how can a department turn down an application? The answer is complex, and it boils down to: very carefully. A department has the right to make minimum requirements for membership, but they have to be a job related function. This means you can require physicals, physical testing, background checks, drug and alcohol testing, but you cannot require the member to have brown hair. Whatever requirements there are must be set in writing ahead of time, and must uniformly enforced and not just to keep Joe Blow out.

This is where people usually get caught. If you have a residency requirement, and waive it for Joe Shmoe, you need to waive it for Joe Blow. Also, you cannot choose to enforce your requirements just because you do not like Joe Blow. Another common requirement I have seen is that a member cannot be a member of two fire departments at the same time. While I understand the intent of this clause, I believe it is hypocritical if you believe that paid firefighters should be able to volunteer. With all the hype over the Hartford IAFF contract banning people from being volunteers, we need to be flexible and allow our volunteers to volunteer at other companies.

So what happens if you still want to turn down Joe Blow, but he meets all of the requirements? The first step is to have a discussion with Joe Blow and see if the problems can be resolved, or if you can convince him to withdraw his application. Offer him an alternative to joining your company. Try to find a way to keep him happy, while turning his application down. If that doesn’t work, if you prepared in advance, you may be able to state that your membership is ‘full’. This is a touchy area, but if your membership is capped to 25, or whatever number, of members then you can turn an applicant down. The tough part is, you would need to turn down any other applicants too.

The next question is, once Joe Blow is a member, how do you fire him? You need to ask yourself, why do you want to fire him? Is he not meeting company standards? Did he do something wrong? Do you just not like him?

If he is not meeting company standards, (number of drills, calls, meetings, etc…) and you have a minimum set in writing, then it is easy to ‘fire’ him. The first step has to be a notification, with a ‘chance to cure’. What this means is that you notify the member that they are not meeting the minimums and give them a certain amount of time to meet the minimum. (Usually six months.) The hard part is that if you fire Joe Blow for not meeting the standards, you need to fire everyone who is not meeting the standards. This means if the Chief is not up to par, even he must go.

That being said, the minimums need to be reasonable, and exceptions can be made for extreme circumstances. If you require someone to make 50% of the calls, that may not be reasonable, but if you require them to make 50% of the calls they are available for, that may be reasonable. The hard part is that exceptions cannot be made based on whether or not you like Joe Blow, but should be made along established guidelines. (Death in the family, work commitments, etc…)

If Joe Blow did something wrong, or broke a rule, or the like, then the situation gets a bit stickier. First, your rules need to be set in writing. Second, your discipline process needs to be detailed and followed. Third, as with everything else we talked about today, the rules need to be enforced evenly.

The rules your department sets need to be specific, yet allow for the company to run without restriction. If your rules are too vague, they will be impossible to enforce evenly, and will be interpreted differently by each person. Finding a balance is hard. Many departments like the use of rules such as ‘conduct unbecoming of a firefighter’, but vague terms like this can cause more problems then help. What exactly is conduct unbecoming? Is that when a firefighter shows up on the scene drunk or is that when a firefighter burps in public?

Once your rules are set, the next step is a well-defined discipline process. An oversight board should do discipline privately, in a progressive manner. Your oversight board could be a group of directors, commissioners, or whatever you want to call them as long as they are impartial and above department politics. They need to have the power to discipline any member, including Chief officers and/or the President.

Progressive discipline is a process of warnings and discipline that takes into account past actions and consequences. Usually it starts with a verbal warning. A verbal warning is usually a first corrective measure that may or may not have a disciplinary action. Even though a verbal warning is by its nature ‘verbal’, it should be documented and put into a member’s file. The next step would be a written warning. This is a documented explanation of the problem and may include a period of probation or suspension of privileges. Some actions may be dangerous enough to warrant an immediate written warning.

The final step in progressive discipline would be to ‘fire’ the volunteer. This shouldn’t be taken lightly, and should only be after a warning, and a ‘chance to cure’. With exception of endangering another member’s life, I cannot foresee a circumstance where you would skip to expulsion.

Any expulsion process should be done by the oversight board, not a single officer. Additionally, a member should be able to appeal a disciplinary action to the oversight board. A thorough examination of the facts should be done before a decision is made.

Before you kick Joe Blow out, think it through. For many people the firehouse is their life, and if it isn’t, it is at least a big part of their family. How would you feel if you were kicked out of an organization you’ve put your heart into? There are times you’d be better off without Joe Blow, but don’t let your temper and/or impatience get the better of you.

(DISCLAIMER: I am not a lawyer, never have been one, don’t want to be one, and didn’t even stay at a super 8 last night. This article is not meant to be legal advice. Contact a lawyer if you have questions and/or foresee a problem situation. –JZ)

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