Fearing that the ranks of volunteer fire departments throughout Maryland could be depleted, representatives of those companies are protesting a newly enforced policy that requires paid firefighters to choose between a union card and their part-time volunteer work.
The policy, long on the books of the International Association of Fire Fighters, prohibits union members from volunteering in counties with a paid fire department represented by the union. The rule has been enforced in recent months by union locals in Howard and Prince George's counties - a move that volunteer firefighters say runs counter to President Bush's call for citizens to give time to their communities.
"With the president asking all Americans to volunteer, there is something wrong with asking firefighters to stop volunteering in their communities," said Charles "Jenks" Mattingly, president of the Maryland State Firemen's Association, which represents volunteer fire stations in Maryland.
Association officials say they've scheduled a meeting next week with an aide to Tom Ridge, director of the federal Office of Homeland Security, about their dispute with the IAFF, which represents paid firefighters and paramedics in Anne Arundel, Howard, Baltimore and Prince George's counties.
IAFF officials say the union encourages its members to volunteers for charities. But they say volunteer firefighters take jobs from full-time firefighters and paramedics.
"I always ask volunteer [firefighters] what they would do if a group of people started volunteering in their workplace," said IAFF spokesman George A. Burke. "It's also a health and safety issue. This kind of work - the repetitive injuries it causes, the exposure to hazardous materials - takes its toll."
At the IAFF convention in August, a resolution that declared volunteer companies in Prince George's County "rival organizations" was passed, which cleared the way for the local there to enforce the policy. Officials of Prince George's County Local 1619 sent letters last month to other union locals whose members volunteer at fire stations in Prince George's County. Several dozen paid firefighters in Virginia, Washington and Maryland were notified that they must quit volunteering or face fines and dismissal from the union.
"They have a choice to make," said Thomas McEachin, president of the Prince George's County local. "If their conviction or love is to be volunteer firefighter, we're just asking that they turn in their union membership card. We're not saying they shouldn't volunteer. We're just asking members to follow the rules of the organization they say they want to be a part of."
McEachin said he sought the resolution after the union was unable to resolve long-standing labor disputes with volunteer companies in the county.
Michael Rund, the president of the Howard County Professional Firefighters, IAFF Local 2000, also sent letters to several dozen paid firefighters for Howard County's department who also volunteer or work part-time in Howard.
Rund said that three firefighters in Howard County resigned from volunteer companies as a result of the letters he sent out in December. The three were already inactive in the volunteer companies, he said.
Volunteer firefighters worry the recent union actions will have a ripple effect throughout the state. Mattingly, the volunteer firemen's association president, estimated that 1,200 volunteer firefighters in Maryland are also paid firefighters represented by the IAFF. He fears that paid firefighters might leave the volunteer ranks rather than give up their union affiliation.
"If we lose those volunteers, it could put some of our companies out of business and seriously affect fire service in those areas," he said.
In Anne Arundel County, paid firefighters aren't allowed to volunteer in the county - a prohibition currently being appealed by volunteers asking for clarification from the U.S. Labor Department on the issue. In Baltimore County, paid firefighters had been banned from working as volunteers, but now are allowed to if they waive any claims to overtime pay from the county for their volunteer duties.
Volunteer firefighters from across central Maryland are scheduled to meet early next month in Laurel to develop a plan to fight the IAFF policy, Mattingly said. The group has already contacted congressional leaders and state officials about the dispute.