- The Washington Times - Monday, July 12, 2010

Most Americans take it for granted that when we punch the clock and leave work, our time is our own to do with as we choose. More than 800,000 men and women in this country choose to dedicate a significant portion of their free time to serving their communities as volunteer firefighters. These individuals train on nights and weekends and are “on call” to respond to emergencies when they aren’t at their full-time jobs.

For thousands of career firefighters, the choice to volunteer for their hometown fire department during off-duty hours comes with a threat of expulsion from their labor union. That is exactly what happened to Vincent Pereira and Michael Schaffer, firefighters from New Jersey who were targeted by the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) because of their volunteer service. Mr. Pereira was expelled, and Mr. Schaffer departed the IAFF on his own after being threatened with expulsion if he didn’t stop volunteering.

The examples of Mr. Pereira and Mr. Schaffer are noteworthy because they stood up to the IAFF and continued to volunteer. Facing similar circumstances, many more “two-hatters” simply quit volunteering, not wanting to give up their union membership or risk alienation in the workplace. The National Volunteer Fire Council believes that the constitutional right to free association applies to citizens who choose to be active members of volunteer fire departments. No employer or labor union in a free society should be allowed to abuse its position of authority by attempting to prohibit individuals from serving their communities as volunteer firefighters.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that there are nearly 30,000 career firefighters in the United States who volunteer as firefighters during off-duty hours. These two-hatters generally get their start in the fire service as volunteers, through which they receive valuable training and experience that prepares them to pursue a career as a firefighter. Unfortunately, upon obtaining a paid position in a career fire department, two-hatters are often pressured to quit volunteering by the union that is supposed to represent them.

For a variety of reasons, fire departments are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain volunteer personnel - particularly among those younger than 40. According to the National Fire Protection Association, more than 50 percent of firefighters protecting communities of 2,500 or fewer (this includes 400,000 firefighters - more than a third of all firefighters in the United States and a little fewer than half of all volunteer firefighters) were older than 40 in 2008. That percentage has risen every year except for two since 1987, when nearly two-thirds of firefighters protecting communities of that size were younger than 40 years.

By pressuring its members to quit volunteering, the IAFF exacerbates the recruitment and retention challenges facing volunteer fire departments. Two-hatters are among the most dedicated and experienced members of volunteer fire departments. Losing the services of volunteer firefighters threatens public safety in thousands of communities across the country.

Volunteer firefighters sacrifice their time and risk their lives to protect their family, friends and neighbors. The services that volunteer firefighters provide save local taxpayers more than $37 billion annually - overwhelmingly in sparsely populated rural communities that tend to have high poverty rates and low tax bases. For the sake of public safety and of respecting the constitutional rights of their own members, the IAFF should end its policy of targeting two-hatters.

Philip C. Stittleburg is chairman of the National Volunteer Fire Council.