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October 24, 2014

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Practice of on-duty firefighters raising money for charity questioned

Steve Sisolak

Steve Sisolak

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With boots in hand, Clark County firefighters will finish this week their annual ritual of soliciting donations for the Muscular Dystrophy Association at valley supermarkets and malls.

But one Clark County commissioner, who has become an outspoken critic of the department in recent months, is questioning the practice of allowing firefighters to do the charity work while on the clock.

Commissioner Steve Sisolak said he was stunned to learn recently that the donations are collected on the taxpayers’ dime. “I’ve talked to a lot of people, and everyone I know thinks they do this on their own free time, out of the spirit of giving and philanthropy,” Sisolak said.

County firefighters are on duty, typically with a firetruck parked nearby and ready to go, as they solicit donations.

The practice of allowing firefighters to participate in the “boot drive” on work time has been questioned off and on over the years. But Sisolak raises the issue at an uncomfortable time for the department. Firefighters have faced backlash over their pay and benefits, and their refusal last year to give what county officials deemed true wage concessions. The union is currently negotiating a new contract with the county.

Sisolak said firefighters’ participation raises questions about how they spend their time on duty. He noted that the Fire Department is preparing to ask for an increase in safety inspection fees charged to developers and trade shows. The department says current fees don’t cover inspection costs. Every firefighter can also do basic “familiarity inspections,” which Sisolak confirmed the department is behind on.

“And yet they are taking time to do the boot drive. How do they have this extra time?” Sisolak said. “And if this (the boot drive) is OK, what if police officers now want to say, ‘Hey, can we take a day while we’re on patrol to collect money?’ ”

Sisolak also wondered why Clark County singles out MDA over many other worthy causes.

“How did we pick this one and everyone else gets excluded?” he said. “I guess I just have a lot of questions.”

The answer stems more from tradition than any value judgment regarding MDA’s work to improve research and treatment of muscular dystrophy, ALS and related diseases. The MDA is also named the “charity of choice” by the International Association of Firefighters.

Scott Allison, county fire department spokesman and a member of MDA’s executive board, said the ties between Southern Nevada firefighters and the organization stretch back decades. Four local firefighters established the first boot drive in the country in 1961. (Ironically, two of them later died of neuromuscular disease.)

Indeed, Sisolak and the other six commissioners recently signed a proclamation supporting the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the boot drive. (Sisolak said he supports the effort, but he does not support it being done by on-duty firefighters.)

Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani defended the decades-long practice, saying firefighters’ participation isn’t a concern to her.

Chris Giunchigliani

Chris Giunchigliani

“In 56 years no one has abused it, there has never been a problem. Why would we create a problem?” Giunchigliani said. “I think at some point we have to recognize the true spirit of what they are doing — it is a public service.”

Allison said about 460 valley families have children with neuromuscular diseases. Last year, six local teenagers died from muscular dystrophy.

Having worked with the association for more than 20 years, Allison called the boot drive a “labor of love” and something rookie firefighters look forward to. “They love being out there, and the people enjoy us being there.”

He added that all department firefighters take part during the three-day event.

Asked if the boot drive would get as much support if firefighters weren’t being paid, Allison said, “I do think our guys would go out. I think the dedication is there because they see where the money goes, they know a lot of the kids who are in wheelchairs.”

Firefighters from all of Southern Nevada’s fire departments participate in the boot drive, but policies differ on whether they do so while on duty.

Boulder City, Henderson and Las Vegas allow firefighters to collect donations during work hours, but a city of Las Vegas spokesman said off-duty firefighters also participate.

In North Las Vegas, the kinds of questions being asked by Sisolak prompted the department to change its policy this year. The city’s firefighters now only participate during off-duty hours, North Las Vegas Capt. Cedric Williams said.

“We just wanted to make sure the focus isn’t lost and put on whether the money was raised on-duty or off-duty,” Williams said. “We thought the cause was more than worth it, and we do it on our own time.”

Williams hasn’t noticed any decline in participation by firefighters under the new policy.

Firefighters have been an important part of MDA’s fundraising efforts. The Web site of International Association of Firefighters Local 1908, the Clark County firefighters union, says firefighters have raised more than $450 million for MDA over more than five decades.

In Southern Nevada, fire departments valleywide raised $204,389 in 2009; $186,421 in 2008 and $209,110 in 2007.

Despite the obvious benefit of the annual event, Sisolak isn’t the first to question the boot drive.

In 2000, then-Fire Chief Earl Greene questioned the fairness of using taxpayer-funded employees to support one charity over another. His argument was rebuffed by then-Commissioner Erin Kenny, who got fellow commissioners to support a resolution expressing their appreciation for the boot drive.

The issue arose again six years ago, when a Las Vegas Review-Journal columnist questioned the practice. After a review, then-County Manager Thom Reilly modified county policy, allowing firefighters to work the boot drive for only four hours while on duty. He also noted that county employees support other charities, including the United Way.

All valley fire departments will participate in the boot drive Friday and Saturday.

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