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It’s highly recommended that this article be read by Commissioners, Chiefs and Company Presidents!!


Greg Serio – CAFDA Attorney

Since I started this series about the annual organizational meeting back in November, this yearly event still seemed like a long way off. Now, as we find ourselves in mid-December, with our board membership confirmed by annual district elections and company leadership selected by the membership (including the nominations of chief officers, as we discussed in the last installment), we know that the organizational meeting is just around the corner. So, it is time to discuss the state of affairs of district/company relations and how the organizational meeting can be used to set the relationship parameters.

As you may know, some districts and towns pay for fire protection through contracts with private fire companies who receive money for their services. Those contracts are specifically governed by a variety of state statutes. My friend and colleague, attorney Tim Hannigan, general counsel at FASNY, addressed issues relating to these types of contracts in a recent column in The Volunteer Firefighter. But what about those fire companies and associations that are not separately and independently incorporated entities but rather organized, equipped and otherwise supported by the fire district? My experience over 33 years in a commissioned district, and in my time as a district counsel, have told me that there is not much focus on approaching those relations to some degree like those relationships between authorities having jurisdiction and private incorporated fire companies. In a question, can a fire district condition its selection of the X fire company as the official firefighting and rescue force of the fire district for the coming year on certain principles if not prescriptive requirements?

In a word, yes, they can do so even if they haven’t done so in the past.

As I teach the state mandated class for new fire commissioners (chiefs and assistant chiefs, along with district secretaries and treasurers would be good to attend these classes as well if for no other reason than you are mentioned—a lot—in these programs) I hear lots of stories about how the fire companies either assume that they are the core engine of a fire district, or, conversely, the fire district is there to take all of the problems away from a risk averse fire company. While a critical component in the operation of any fire department, the fire district is the authority having jurisdiction and is ultimately responsible for providing fire and rescue services to its constituents, be those services be delivered by the company that has long been affiliated with the district or one from the outside that the district decides to contract with as an alternative, or whether the district comes up with another plan altogether. For our purposes, we will assume that the fire district will want to continue to appoint its partner as the official firefighting and rescue force to operate upon the authority of the fire district. But we will also assume that issues have cropped up between the two organizations, like those that are now commonplace: declining enrollment in fire companies, which is leading to fewer qualified firefighters, less than satisfactory chief officer nominees, and longer response times, higher burnout and other things that stand to challenge the core mission of the fire district.

The fire company’s sole role insofar as the fire district is concerned (its mission or objectives as a social organization may vary and give it purpose outside of a firefighting responsibility) is to provide members to the fire district, to be handed over to the chief officers for training, and then put into service as active firefighters and rescue personnel. If the fire company cannot meet that singular purpose to the satisfaction of the district in the discharge of its duties to the public, then a foundational conversation must be had between the two organizations. Such a conversation is always better when it is in a context of what is expected of the fire company, when it is informed by the experience of the chiefs in managing the personnel provided by the fire company, and when it is against a backdrop of what is necessary to effectively serve the public. Establishing parameters on the fire company to meet certain personnel goals, whether they are principle-based goals, such as “the fire company shall endeavor to improve the membership of the fire company so as to continue to provide firefighters to the fire district,” or more prescriptive, such as “the fire company shall increase its membership by not less than 5% each year to accommodate established attrition trends of active firefighters coming off line annually,” the district is putting the fire company on notice that it is closely watching personnel trends, perhaps even in the context of response performance or other additional metrics.

The fire district may also insist on other principles or prescriptions:

  • The fire company shall annually provide the district with a list of all members, their addresses and their respective status, so that the commissioners can be informed as to the number of active-duty responders, where they are (remember the 45% rule? That is to be sure that there are adequate responders within the confines of a fire district, something the district needs to know) and what there respective performances were for the previous year.
  • The fire company shall provide its bylaws and constitution each year, regardless of any change thereto, together with monthly meeting minutes and quarterly financials, so that the board can determine the fitness of the company to meet its obligations as the official firefighting force for the fire district (this being an amalgam of law, comptroller audit findings and actual exchanges between fire districts and fire companies; as one fire company lawyer said to me, this is a silly hill to die on for the fire companies because the fire district has many different ways to compel production of such information).
  • The fire district shall require the fire company to maintain such policies and procedures that to the greatest extent possible safeguard the safety and well-being of its members when not otherwise under the direction and responsibility of the chiefs (such as at fires, drills, parades, funerals, and other statutorily-allowed activities of a fire district).

How a fire company acknowledges and responds to such conditions of appointment will largely be up to them unless things are specifically demanded by a board (the boards would do well to not delve so deeply into the “how of things”). They will have to have a plan of recruitment and retention; so many people think that is the chief’s responsibility, and as a matter of necessity a chief oftentimes picks this up as a default, but it is definitely NOT the responsibility of the chief to create members of the fire company. (The fire district may require periodic reporting on recruitment efforts, and that would be appropriate.) The chief turns them into responders. For the company’s protection, if the problem of making members into responders is because of failing of the firematic officers, the company president should inform the district of same. Some will say that they have such good relations between their boards and companies that no such parameters need to be set; amen, and move along, as this is certainly not necessary for everyone).

There is one fire company in the Capital Region that maintained a particularly strenuous relationship with the fire district board that appointed this company as one of two official firefighting forces for the district. That was up until the day when the district had had enough, informed the company its services were no longer necessary, and removed the fire district equipment out of the company-owned station and back into the district’s main station. Insto-presto, the fire company became a social organization, and the fire house became a clubhouse for that social organization. The company was even forced to remove the name of the fire department from its facia lest it be confused with a real firehouse. Another district in our region did it once before around 15 years ago and came very close to having to do it again, but cooler heads prevailed at the company level and now there is a far more harmonious relationship between the two. And I am certain there are many more stories than that around town.

All of this is not to say who is stronger, though many will look at this as nothing than an organizational fistfight. The law is very well designed to articulate who is expected to do what, how lanes of responsibility are to be defined, and what are the objectives of the fire district/fire company relationship. This is not a scrum. This is a well-established order of things. It is always up to those at the company level to understand how it works, and for commissioners to articulate why they need the things they are asking of the company (most of which are self-evident). The organizational meeting, which should be attended by the fire company president (if not its board if the directors are looking broadly at their obligations), the chief officers and all of the commissioners so that this relationship and its parameters are clearly understood so that there is no surprise if it comes time for the commissioners to decide that they must look elsewhere for their official firefighting and rescue force for the year.

If anyone would like a template of such a resolution for appointing a fire company as the official firefighting force of the fire district, feel free to connect with me at [email protected].

Good luck with your organizational meeting and all of 2024.