The Woonsocket Fire Department in Rhode Island is considering deploying an on-call volunteer program to help balance out the budget and prevent the local firefighters union from filing a lawsuit.
As Woonsocket battles a budgetary crisis, the Local 732 chapter of the International Association of Fire Fighters is being transitioned to a less costly health plan and potentially forced to integrate volunteers into operations. The local firefighters union has been in negotiations with the city’s budget commission over its contract set to expire in July 2014.
The decision to add volunteer on-call personnel to the staff is part of a five-year plan to eliminate Woonsocket’s mounting debts. If volunteers are brought on, Woonsocket will be the first city in the state to implement such a measure. After the firefighters union became aware of the city’s cutbacks to personnel and healthcare coverage, a lawsuit was filed. As recently retired firefighters and the IAFF take notice of the activity, further lawsuits regarding unfair labor practices may also be filed.
While it may seem reasonable for the city to cutback personnel and allow volunteers to help protect the community, the firefighters union does not agree. The firefighters see the enactments as breaches of contract that not only take away jobs from hard-working union members but also gamble with the public’s safety. Volunteers may be inexperienced or received insufficient training prior to joining the firehouse, making them a liability in certain instances of disaster or crisis.
The budget commission, however, argues the volunteer strategy was a contingency plan setup in case negotiations with the firefighters union proved ineffective. Rather than prolonging a standstill, the city looked for an immediate solution to reduce financial liabilities.
Despite disagreements in Woonsocket, other communities have benefited greatly from the integration of volunteer firefighters into local houses. The Bayport Fire Department in Minnesota, for example, has a long history of an all-volunteer firehouse.
The Star Tribune reported the Bayport Fire Department has been manned by volunteer firefighters for the past 125 years. The city has adopted a volunteer culture, specifically in its firefighting team. Many residents grow up with a desire to voluntarily serve their community and join in the camaraderie of the local firehouse.
But Bayport is not the only department in the state optimizing volunteer workers. Other communities as well are striking a balance between paid and volunteer firefighters to meet the needs of the community without further driving up debts.
Furthermore other cities nationwide are experimenting with consolidation strategies that merge fire department personnel, resources or operations between communities. Making better use of manpower and equipment, consolidated efforts allow for assets to be joined without sacrificing quality of service to residents, when deployed effectively. The basis for consolidation is the demand for local governments to reduce expenditures on various departments, as unfunded liabilities continue to increase.