Safety Risks of Fill the Boot

Dear Nozzlehead,

I have wanted to write for quite some time and finally decided to do so. I teach the Incident Safety Officer class to many fire service members and hopeful leaders. I acknowledge that the fire service is entrenched in a history that I love. However, I struggle with one particular practice. For years, the fire service has been a huge supporter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA), and I am not against this at all. What I oppose is the method many departments use to collect money.

Our nation feels emergency responders are in harm’s why by being on or near a roadway so it has enacted a law that mandates we wear traffic vests. We read the statistics about how many responders are killed while working on the roadways, yet we don’t think twice about standing in the middle of the road collecting money for causes like MDA! I don’t get it! As a responder, I have seen many close calls where one of my colleagues almost became a statistic.

I am very glad we don’t honor this practice in our department but fear for those who do. I have seen this practice firsthand at our area’s busiest intersections where the highest crash rates occur.

Do you have any advice for our comrades?

–Concerned for Their Safety

Dear Roadblock,

Thanks for your letter. For the sake of our readers, a little history is worth a moment here. From the little digging I did, I found it all began when a man named Charles Crowley, who had two kids of his own with muscular dystrophy, reached out to his good buddy George Graney, a Boston firefighter and International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) member, for help to raise money in support of muscular dystrophy research.

As the story goes, the two rounded up 20 additional firefighters from Graney’s Boston Local 718 and set off for a neighborhood door-to-door canister drive–which raised an impressive $5,000. The success of that initial effort and subsequent drives prompted the cofounders to attend the IAFF 1954 National Convention in Miami where it was proposed and unanimously approved that MDA would be forever more the IAFF’s “charity of choice.” That day, the firefighters solidified their partnership with the MDA, pledging that they would continue the fight until the battle is won. The Fill the Boot campaign was an instant success, with the IAFF membership passing a resolution to support the Association’s fight against muscular dystrophy until treatments and cures are found.

Today, the IAFF takes obvious pride in continuing the tradition of being the number one fundraising organization for the MDA. The 300,000 members of the IAFF in the United States and Canada are the strongest campaigners for the MDA’s worldwide research efforts to eradicate 40 neuromuscular diseases. The contributions of the firefighters also go toward the MDA’s summer camps for children, professional and public health education, and other programs.

As the greatest contributor to MDA, firefighters are everywhere in the MDA’s efforts to raise money. The IAFF is the biggest sponsor of the MDA’s Labor Day Telethon, and it contributed (for example) a remarkable $27.6 million in year 2010 as a consequence of the overwhelming enthusiasm and contribution of tens of thousands of firefighters and paramedics across the United States and Canada. IAFF members have donated more than $500 million to MDA since 1954.

That’s a lot of cash–cash that has mattered.

Most of the money is raised largely through the Fill the Boot campaign, but in recent years IAFF affiliates have added a few more creative fundraising endeavors including golf events, bowl-a-thons, and softball tournaments. As a result, the IAFF’s ongoing support allows the MDA to fund more than 200 research projects around the world; maintain a nationwide network of 200 medical clinics, including more than 40 MDA/ALS centers for diagnostic and follow-up care; provide equipment repairs for those in need; and sponsor nearly 80 summer camps, all free-of-charge for campers and created specifically for young people with neuromuscular diseases.

Does this sound like I am writing a commercial for the IAFF’s efforts? Well, if it doesn’t, then I didn’t write this correctly.

What they have done is literally a miracle in helping fight this horrible disease. Like firefighters everywhere, their efforts matter. It should also be noted that many other organizations do “boot drives” to support the MDA efforts as well.

So now the issue is risk vs. benefit. Is it a predictable risk for firefighters to expose themselves to the possibility of being struck by standing in the roadways to collect money? Of course it is. And keep in mind, this isn’t just for the MDA.

Volunteer firefighters in many areas of the country still have to do boot drives to raise funds to support their operations. In many communities, you wouldn’t have to look to find volunteers in the streets passing the boot to buy that new pumper, rescue truck, or ambulance or build a new firehouse.

To answer your question directly, the risk is there and if firefighters can come up with better ways to collect these important funds, they should. Volunteer firefighters having to raise funds to operate should be commended, but it’s 2015, and with personal time so tight, it’s time for the local community to ante up and pay for your equipment. You don’t see public works crews doing boot drives to buy new snow plows or cops doing boot drives to buy new cars. Next time you see the city manager or related city hall dwellers doing fundraising to buy their desks or build a new office, take a picture and send it to me. The days of expecting volunteer firefighters to volunteer AND raise money to volunteer is over; many volunteer fire departments can barely get enough people to join, train, and respond.

Specific to those on the roadways, find a better way to raise the funds such as shopping centers, malls, and places where you are less likely to be struck. If you can’t, use extreme caution following the same standards you would anytime you are operating on the roadways.

To be clear, for those who do collect money in this way, safety measures should be, and for the most part are, taken. The union local (or volunteer fire department) should sign an agreement for collection with the MDA. With that, the local MDA office takes out insurance for the firefighters, on and off duty, and for traveling to and from the designated collection point.

There are additional safety measures that must be followed: early PSAs; safety vests worn; well-marked area of collection (signs, cones, apparatus); collect from the roadside or median; never stop traffic, only approach stopped vehicles; and no spouses or children working roadway collections.

The public is very aware, through history, that Labor Day weekend firefighters will be collecting. For the fire department and union, safety must be paramount in collecting.

Roadblock, I get it as far as the risk of being in the roadways for non-emergency situations, but considering the negligible number of firefighters getting hit while raising money, we probably need to be more concerned about those not wearing masks, poor size-ups, lunatics driving apparatus, staffing issues, the lack of fire sprinklers, and especially the issue of firefighter cancer. That’s how we die–and we know it.

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