Unionizing Public Safety Employees Threatens Volunteer FireDepartments and Public Safety

Report Jobs and Labor

Unionizing Public Safety Employees Threatens Volunteer FireDepartments and Public Safety

September 21, 2007 5 min read Download Report
James Sherk
James Sherk
Research Fellow, Labor Economics
As research fellow in labor economics at The Heritage Foundation, James Sherk researched ways to promote competition and mobility.

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act (H.R. 980), passed by the House in July and now before the Senate, threatens to put millions of Americans at greater risk of fire-related loss, injury, or death. By requiring every local government to collectively bargain with its public safety employees, H.R. 980 would force many firefighters into the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), a union that prohibits its members from belonging to volunteer fire departments, even as volunteers in their off-time. Off-duty professional firefighters form the core of America's nearly 26,000 volunteer fire departments, and forcing them into the IAFF would cause volunteer fire departments across America to shut down, threatening public safety and straining local budgets. Congress should not force every local fire department in America to collectively bargain.

Forced Collective Bargaining

The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act requires every state and local government to collectively bargain with their public safety employees: policemen, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel. Most states already do this, but a minority does not. The bill also requires states that already have collective bargaining to bargain over nearly every term and condition of employment. Currently, many states exempt topics, such as using merit pay instead of seniority-based pay, from collective bargaining.

This bill has attracted little public attention, but if enacted it would dramatically affect how local governments serve their citizens. Few communities are aware of the fact that the Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act may imperil their volunteer fire departments.

Volunteer Fire Departments Provide Essential Protection

Volunteer fire departments provide essential protection for tens of millions of Americans. Fully 72 percent of firefighters in the United States are volunteers.[1] Most communities with fewer than 25,000 residents are protected by volunteer fire departments.[2] Most of these volunteer fire departments are anchored by a core of professional career firefighters.

To earn a living, these career firefighters work for another department and volunteer in their spare time, or they are employed directly by a mostly volunteer department. Volunteer fire departments allow many small communities to protect themselves from fires without the expense of employing full-time career firefighters.

Unions Oppose Volunteer Firefighting

This is why the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which represents career firefighters, bitterly opposes volunteer firefighting. Fewer career fire departments results in fewer jobs for career firefighters and fewer unionized career firefighters paying union dues. The IAFF has done everything in its power to shut down volunteer fire departments.

The IAFF constitution prevents its members from serving in volunteer fire departments on their own time.[3] "Two-hatters" who ignore the union constitution face steep fines. The IAFF also negotiates collective bargaining agreements that require cities to fire any career firefighters who volunteer with other fire departments in their free time. Firefighters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, sued after their union negotiated such a provision, but the courts ruled that the union may negotiate a contract that would prevent them from volunteering on their own time.[4]

If Congress requires every local government to collectively bargain with its firefighters, many local firefighters will be pushed into IAFF membership. Union fines and restrictive collective bargaining agreements mean that many career firefighters will be prevented from volunteering in their communities. Without a professional core, many volunteer fire departments would have to close.

Harms Local Communities

This is precisely what the IAFF wants to happen. As IAFF President Harold Schaitberger explained:

All too often, jurisdictions rely upon the services of volunteers to undermine the efforts of our own members to obtain the resources necessary to support a properly staffed and adequately equipped full time career fire department. As a union representing the interests of paid professional fire fighters, we can and must promote the interests of our members by strongly advocating career fire departments across North America.[5]

The IAFF wants local governments to replace volunteer fire departments with career fire departments. But in most small communities, paying for a professional department is not realistic or feasible. The expense of a full-time, career-firefighter-staffed fire department would severely strain the budgets of towns with only a few thousand residents. Each volunteer firefighter saves his or her community an average of $45,500 a year. Nationwide, volunteer firefighters save their communities $37.2 billion a year.[6]

If the IAFF's campaign against volunteer fire departments forces every community to replace its volunteer fire department with a professional department, local tax bills will have to rise or other services will have to be cut to cover the expense. Financial realities would force many communities to cut back on fire protection, leaving their residents at greater risk. Congress should not put cities and towns across America in this position.

No Protection for Volunteers

This very concern derailed previous versions of this legislation, and so its supporters added a provision that appears to protect volunteer firefighters. Section 8(a)(4) of H.R. 980 specifies that the legislation does not "permit parties subject to the National Labor Relations Act…to negotiate provisions that would prohibit an employee from engaging in part-time employment or volunteer activities during off-duty hours."

But this provision will not protect volunteer firefighters, because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) does not cover public sector labor relations. Local governments are not subject to the NLRA. The legislation would subject them to the Federal Labor Authority, but not the NLRA. This provision would do absolutely nothing to prevent the IAFF from fining its members for volunteering or from negotiating contracts that prevent its members from volunteering.


The Public Safety Employer-Employee Cooperation Act would threaten the existence of many volunteer fire departments, putting millions of Americans at greater risk of fire-related injury or death. Rather than force local governments to collectively bargain with the IAFF, Congress should let them choose the policies that best serve their citizens.

James Sherk is Bradley Fellow in Labor Policy in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.


[1]Michael J. Karter, "U.S. Fire Department Profile," National Fire Protection Association, October 2006, at www.nfpa.org/itemDetail.asp?categoryID=417&itemID=18246&URL=Research%20&%20Reports/Fire%20reports/Fire%20service%20statistics.


[3]The International Association of Fire Fighters, "Constitution and By-Laws," Article XV.

[4]Messman v. Helmke, 133 F.3d 1042 (7th Cir. 1998).

[5]Letter from IAFF president Harold Schaitberger to IAFF affiliate presidents, September 20, 2002, at www.nvfc.org/news/hn_iaff_presidents_consequence.html.

[6]National Volunteer Fire Council Foundation, "Economic Impact of the Volunteer Fire Service Project," May 2004, at www.nvfc.org/calculator/nvfc-cost-savings.doc .


James Sherk
James Sherk

Research Fellow, Labor Economics