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Leave Proposed for Volunteer Fire Fighters
This may be a positive influence in recruitment of volunteers

Volunteer Firefighter Protection Volunteers are a valuable resource to our communities. They are extremely important during a time of crisis. Every year volunteer firefighters in communities across Oregon answer the call at all hours of the night. They respond to automobile accidents, public assistance calls, rescue situations and of course fires of all kinds. Volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line every time they answer that call for help.

However, emergencies don’t just happen on the weekend or in the evening when these volunteers could typically respond during personal time. They often happen in the middle of the workday and can even last several days. Historically, employers, on an individual basis, assess the desires of individual employees to participate in these volunteer activities and are able to weigh that with the potential impacts to operating the business.

In Oregon, extended periods of time to support emergency services are often covered under the definition of conflagration “an extensive fire which destroys a great deal of land or property.” Conflagrations assistance by volunteers is already addressed in a separate statute other that the one listed in SB 376. The conflagration volunteer option is located in ORS 476.510:

1) Upon request of an employee who is a volunteer firefighter of a rural fire protection district or a firefighter employed by a city or a private firefighting service to perform service pursuant to ORS 476.510 to 476.610, the employee, upon written notice by the employer, may be granted a leave of absence by the employer until release from such service permits the employee to resume the duties of employment.

2) The regular employment position of an employee on leave of absence under this section shall be considered vacant only for the period of the leave of absence. The employee shall not be subject to removal or discharge from such position as a consequence of the leave of absence.

3) Upon the termination of a leave of absence under this section, the employee shall be restored to the employee’s position or an equivalent position by the employer without loss of seniority, vacation credits, sick leave credits, service credits under a pension plan or any other employee benefit or right that had been earned at the time of the leave of absence.

Also, conflagration responses are paid for by the agency or state that is requesting the assistance. They pay the responding fire district for the equipment being requested as well as for the volunteer personnel that go with that apparatus. The reimbursement /pay begins from the time the equipment and volunteer leaves their home fire station until they return. Volunteer firefighters are paid $15.50 an hour, Engineers are paid $17.50 an hour and officer/Engine Bosses are paid $18.50 an hour. In the event they are gone for more than 40 hours, over-time pay is added to the volunteer compensation. For example, a firefighter who is sent on a 7 day conflagration would receive an estimated $3,576 in pay.

SB 376 sponsored by Senator Brian Boquist (R-Dallas), at the request of the Sherman Family, looks to expand the conflagration protections into other areas of statute. By doing so it would provide employment protections to a broader scope of volunteer response situations. The legislation would require employers that employ 20 or more employees to grant unpaid leave of absence to employees who are called into service to perform duties related to service as volunteer firefighters. In addition, employers with 50 or more employees would be required to grant unpaid leave of absence for up to 14 calendar days for training. The volunteer leave would be allowed to be taken in hourly increments.

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

A D V E R T I S E M E N T

With the number of volunteer firefighters decreasing in Oregon and specifically in rural fire districts this bill may be a positive influence in increasing recruitment of additional volunteers. For example, one small local fire department located in Yamhill County reported that they currently have between 25-30 volunteers and contract with a larger adjoining district for administrative overhead and some Emergency Medical Staff (EMS) support. The station responded to approximately 450 calls for help in 2020 and included in those calls were conflagration responses due to the unprecedented wildfire season. In the month of September alone this small rural station sent apparatus and volunteers to 4 conflagrations totaling 880 apparatus hours. When conflagrations pull resources away or multiple emergency responses are needed simultaneously, volunteers can be stretched thin or need to be called in from other surrounding areas.

However, it may also prove to be a burden on small businesses who cannot afford to shut down when one or more employees leave to volunteer on emergency calls. Emergency calls that often have an undetermined duration, but do not fall under the definition of conflagration.

In the conflagration statute, it allows for pre-arrangement of the absences to be agreed to between the employee and the employer. SB 376 does not contain prearrangement language. In addition, the conflagration statute allows for the employer to deny the request by stating “may be granted a leave of absence by the employer”. SB 376 says “the employee shall be granted leave of absence”. There are no provisions for the employer to deny the absences for any reason thus placing all the burden on the employer.

Volunteers are a valuable part of every community and no more important than in the fire service arena. They allow small rural fire districts to manage costs by using volunteers rather than hiring full time paid professional fire fighters. However, employers also need a reliable labor force and the option to allow employees the opportunity to volunteer in ways that do not impact the ability of the business to operate. It is a delicate balance that may be best left up to the employer and employee relationship rather than mandated in statute.


--Terese Humboldt

Post Date: 2021-02-12 13:14:32Last Update: 2021-02-12 13:44:36



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