Tuesday, April 21, 2009

FLSA: Volunteer firefighters cannot be paid for wildland fires? - implications for fire districts across Lassen County and perhaps the entire nation

Supes concerned about fire districts

The relationship between the county volunteer firefighters and their agencies moved onto the front burner at the Lassen County Board of Supervisors meeting on Tuesday, April 14.

The supervisors plan to revisit the matter during a study session on Tuesday, April 28, but at deadline no time has been set for the session. It could be held as part of the supervisors meeting that begins at 9:30 a.m. or as part of a special study session held later in the day at 1 p.m.

The issue boiled over when Dava Montgomery, whose father worked for the Spalding Fire Department for 16 years, shared her concerns with the supervisors regarding changes in the firefighters status at the Spalding Community Services District an issue that could have implications for fire districts across Lassen County and perhaps across the entire nation.

Many small fire departments respond to fires on state and federal lands and use the money they are paid to bolster their budgets and sometimes pay the firefighters for their services.

On March 28, the Spalding district reacted to an opinion from Jim Curtis, its legal counsel, that the districts volunteer firefighters became employees when they were paid for fighting fires for other agencies such as CAL FIRE.

According to the letter from Curtis to the district, that practice violates the U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act. Curtis advised the district its firefighters either must be volunteers or employees, but they cannot be both at the same time.

Montgomery steamed over that opinion. She told the supervisors Spalding had recently lost our volunteer fire department because the board has terminated them. We are now left with no fire protection (and) no medical emergency (technicians).

Montgomery said the area is at risk if there is a fire. She said many seniors in the area also are at risk without the services of Spalding's first responders in case of medical emergencies.

Bob Pyle, the supervisor who represents the Spalding area disagreed with Montgomery's assessment.

The supervisor told Montgomery he already had taken steps to ensure fire and medical services are available to the Spalding community.

He said the Sierra Emergency Medical Service Authority still provides ambulance service in the district, and that has not changed. The Spalding fire department has first responders for medical emergencies, but it does not provide ambulance services and never has.

In addition, Pyle said he asked the public works department to clear the summit on County Road A-1 between Lake Forest and Spalding to allow fire trucks to drive over the summit and respond to a fire.

He said CAL FIRE was notified the road had been plowed, and the state agency had been given a key to the locked gate just past Lake Forest. The road will be opened to the public later this spring.

Pyle also said he understood EMTs from the Spalding Volunteer Fire Department were ready to respond if needed and a new fire chief had been hired.

We as the board of supervisors have no authority over a CSD, Pyle said. The people in these communities, in the district in this case, the people who live in that district elect a board to govern their district. The people have power over that board just like the people of Lassen County elect us to run the county.

Regarding the conflict in Spalding, Pyle said, If you guys want to fight among yourselves up there, I have no authority over that. My concern is public safety.

I feel there are hidden agendas, Montgomery said. They got rid of everybody because they said they were in violation of the law because they were paid employees.

Montgomery said she'd contacted a number of volunteer fire agencies and they all operate the same.

She said the district didn't have money for firefighters but had money for high-paid employees such as secretaries.

I think the general consensus of the public out there is that they'd rather have a fire department they can rely on than high-priced secretaries and people who are getting most of our money.

Montgomery urged the board of supervisors to look into the matter.

I normally don't get involved with these bickerings of the board back and forth, Montgomery said, but this is something I think is very wrong, If our small community cannot have a volunteer fire department that can respond and work for CAL FIRE that cannot get money to come back in to help that organization, then every volunteer fire department in small counties have the same thing.

It will be a ripple effect that will go all the way across the United States.

Pyle asked Craig Settlemire, Lassen County counsel, to explain the situation to Montgomery.

Settlemire said he did not represent the fire department in Spalding, but he had talked to the district's attorney about the developments in Spalding.

My understanding is this relates to the Fair Labor Standards Act, a federal law, Settlemire said. It basically says if you have someone who is an employee and providing services to any employer, including a district, that person can't also provide services as a volunteer without being paid a wage.

So what happened is, apparently, when state or federal fire agencies asked for assistance from local fire districts such as the Spalding Community Services District, and they send personnel and equipment to a fire, then the state or federal government will pay the money to the district for providing the equipment and the crew for that.

A portion of that money is passed on for the labor cost and the district, as I understand it, has passed that money back to the actual firefighters who went out on that assignment.

Settlemire said the firefighters were in effect paid for their services, and that made them employees of the district. Later on, they provide services to the district as volunteers.

The Fair Labor Standards Act says you can't do that, Settlemire said. You can't provide essentially the same services as a volunteer that you provided as a paid employee. That's a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Settlemire said the issues that have come to light in Spalding could have an effect on many fire districts in the county.

It's a federal law that creates some difficulties in how you treat these people who are providing those services. This could affect other fire district who are providing equipment and personnel for fires during the fire season, and it does create a problem in how do you then return them to volunteer status once they have been paid for their services, Settlemire said.

Supervisor Brian Dahle also weighed in on the issue.

I think we need to agenda this because this is bigger than what we're discussing today, Dahle said. We need to get all the players in here. We all have volunteer fire departments in our districts.

Source: http://www.lassennews.com - Link

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