Salem latest to ponder: Can paid firefighters also volunteer?

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Salem — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday privately will discuss a question many towns are pondering: Can a paid firefighter legally volunteer for the same firehouse?

First Selectman Kevin Lyden said the conversation about federal labor laws — one that has been discussed before — came up again after The Day wrote about Gardner Lake Volunteer Fire Co. Chief James Savalle in March.

Savalle, one of two full-time paid firefighters in town, had been cited with creating a public disturbance — an infraction — in relation to a March 2018 scuffle at the firehouse.

But Savalle’s paid hours are on weekdays. The incident happened on a weekend, when he was volunteering.

Lyden determined he couldn’t place Savalle on administrative leave while the case was pending because he doesn’t oversee volunteers. But he also said the situation highlighted a “murky area” the selectmen would need to discuss.

Though Savalle’s case was dismissed March 27, that conversation continues, Lyden said.

At the crux of the issue is the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was designed to protect employees’ rights to compensation. Among other things, the act says town employees can’t volunteer to provide their employer the same services they are paid to provide.

But full- and part-time paid firefighters in towns including Salem, Preston, Montville and Waterford have been doing just that for years.

Speaking to The Day last month, Keith Truex, chief of Chesterfield Fire Co. in Montville, said some firefighters believe a state law contradicts the federal law. The state law says municipal contracts can’t prohibit town-paid firefighters or emergency personnel from volunteering at fire departments in the towns where they live during their personal time.

Montville Mayor Ron McDaniel said a possible solution would be to allow the paid firefighters to volunteer at companies other than the ones where they work.

In Salem, Lyden said each full-time paid firefighter — one is assigned to Gardner Lake, the other to Salem Volunteer Fire Co. — also volunteers at his respective company.

The town pays three part-time fire marshals, too, and has list of “about a dozen” firefighters who are paid to fill in when one of the regulars is sick or on vacation.

Under an on-call system, Lyden said some firefighters get $25 for a six-hour period to be available and in town on certain weekends and evenings. Volunteers additionally can get a tax abatement of $1,000 or a stipend of $550 if they earn enough points under an ordinance that was adopted in 2011 and amended in 2017.

Lyden said he has spent many evenings over the past month deliberating the paid/volunteer issue with a labor attorney, the fire marshals and McDaniel. He said he expects the attorney to provide a letter with his suggestions before Tuesday’s Board of Selectmen meeting.

Lyden said he’ll outline the attorney’s advice during the executive session.

“I’m not trying to hide anything,” he said when asked why he chose to have the conversation in private. “I have to bring the selectmen up to speed. I’m not sure if I will have the attorney there, or what questions they’ll ask. I’m trying to balance being transparent and open, but sensitive about certain information.”

Lyden, who himself was a volunteer firefighter in the 1970s, vowed to follow the attorney’s recommendations, whatever they may be.

“Back then, you went to the Windham fire school for three hours, threw on some old boots and a jacket and you were good to go,” he said. “Now it’s 100 hours of training and all sorts of laws and regulations.”

“We can’t just say, 'Well, it was done this way 30 years ago,'” he said. “So what? Things have changed. Laws are laws. And they’re not trying to be restrictive — they’re trying to protect people.”

Because of the potential labor issue, Bozrah decided to hire more firefighters in March. Following Bozrah's lead, the Montville fire marshal also is pushing for three new paid firefighters, though the budget is unlikely to fulfill his request.

“Around here we have a lot of good people volunteering, some very dedicated emergency service personnel,” Lyden said, noting how volunteerism is declining nationwide. “Bozrah, Montville, Salem, Colchester ... we all work together anyway. We’ll work together and we’ll get through this.”

l.boyle@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version removes a reference to a town that was incorrectly identified as having allowed paid firefighters to volunteer for their departments.

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