Cities Pull Back on Fill the Boot

At least seven U.S. cities and counties have stopped firefighters from collecting charitable donations at busy intersections, citing safety concerns.

For nearly 61 years, career and volunteer firefighters around the country have participated in "Fill the Boot," raising money, while on duty and in their firefighting gear, by asking passing motorists and pedestrians to contribute to various charities. More than 100,000 firefighters raise about $25 million a year for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, for example.

But traffic and safety concerns, including the death of a firefighter in Michigan, have spurred cities to re-evaluate or halt such fundraising methods.

  • In August, citing concerns about firefighter safety, the city of Marshfield, Wis., rejected their fire department's permit request to fundraise on the streets.
  • Charleston, S.C., began enforcing a ban on passing items to and from motor vehicles in late September.
  • Oklahoma City and other municipalities are weighing whether to ban firefighters' roadside donation drives.
  • Tragedy struck in early September when a driver allegedly intentionally hit and killed Michigan firefighter Dennis Rodeman, 35, during his "Fill the Boot" shift. The driver has since been charged with murder.

"That was just an incident that none of us could have predicted," MDA spokeswoman Roxan Olivas said. "It certainly wasn't an accident and that was what was so hard about it."

A USA TODAY review of federal fatality records indicates Rode-man's case may be the only instance in which a firefighter has died during a fire department-sponsored roadside fundraiser in the past five years.

But firefighters' stories of close calls and accidents speak to the risks of stepping into traffic.

In March, a Ladson, S.C., firefighter collecting money for the Carolina Children's Charity was hit and sent to the hospital with head injuries. In 2012, Haughton, La., firefighter Sean Stewart was seriously injured while collecting for the Muscular Dystrophy Association when a driver hit him in the back.

"We've had some minor stuff," said Roger Lopez, coordinator of the International Association of Fire Fighters National MDA drive. "But out of the thousands of the Fill the Boot drives it is very minimal."

These accidents are often underrepresented in the National Fire Incident Reporting System records because they are not injuries occurring in response to an incident, said Brad Pabody, chief of the National Fire Data Center.

Even without concrete numbers, in the past 10 years a mishmash of solicitation bans and panhandling bans have created new barriers for firefighters raising money on the road.

In Oklahoma City, Councilwoman Meg Salyer introduced a median solicitation ban in early September driven by citizens' safety concerns.

Nearly half of all traffic accidents in Oklahoma City in the past five years happened at intersections, according to Oklahoma City police spokesman Capt. Paco Balderrama. However, no firefighters have been injured.

The roadside "Fill the Boot" events are some fire departments' most lucrative fundraising campaigns.

This year, fire departments in Fairfax County, Va., alone raised $615,945.44 for efforts to cure Muscular Dystrophy.

A review of donations shows that busy intersections bring in more donations than busy supermarket parking lots.

In 2009, St. Andrews Fire Department in Charleston, S.C., moved their teams off the roads, which led to more than a 50% decline in contributions, St. Andrews Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Ken Fischer said.

This year Marshfield, Wis., a city of about 19,000, raised about $1,500 at a grocery store. But in 2014, Rhinelander, Wis., a city of 7,500 people, raised more than $12,000 roadside.

Organizers say safety is their primary priority.

"These are trained public safety officers," Olivas said. "They are trained to handle difficult situations. Safety is absolutely a priority in what they do and with what they do for us."

Salyer, the Oklahoma City councilwoman, said she wants to be clear: Regardless of who is on the median, intersections are not safe.

"If the Girl Scouts chose using medians as their business model to sell cookies, the community would likely be in an uproar," Salyer said. "This is a dangerous place people are doing business."

Nonetheless, the tradition has remained strong in many parts of the country.

"Taking this away is going to hurt (MDA)," Lopez said. "We are their No. 1 sponsor hands down and if all the cities say you can't do this then it will hurt them."

But just as the Jerry Lewis Labor Day telethon came and went, "times change," Salyer said.


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