Volunteers won't get paid

Steamboat firefighters must give up fee of $20 per call

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Volunteer firefighters with Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue no longer are being paid $20 for every call they respond to.

Instead, Fire Chief Bob Struble said Tuesday the department has reorganized its structure to comply with Internal Revenue Service and Fair Labor Association policies by paying the department's reserve members -- trained firefighters who are not full- or part-time employees -- minimum wage.

The department can't pay volunteer firefighters, Struble said, because doing so affects the volunteers' pension plan eligibility.

Struble said the change was made after the department learned about a Front Range fire department's recent audit by the IRS, during which the department was told about the legal conflict.

Struble said volunteer firefighters are eligible for a monthly pension when they retire based on how many years they volunteered. For example, Struble said a volunteer firefighter who worked for 20 years would receive about $450 a month.

However, to be eligible for the pension payments, volunteers can't receive the $20 stipend Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue has paid them for each emergency call they responded to.

Now, the only "paid volunteers" the fire department has are its reserve members, who technically are volunteers but also have the opportunity to work toward a part-time position with the department.

"With these changes, we are now complying with state laws. Before, we were in a gray area," Struble said.

Despite the changes, Struble said, the department is "running smoothly." Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue employs 12 full-time firefighters/emergency medical technicians, four part-time firefighters/EMTs, five "true volunteers," and four reserve members. Struble also said the department will add seven reserve members in July.

Although Struble said the pay changes were necessary to comply with state and federal laws, not everyone with the department is happy with them, including a volunteer firefighter who resigned in February.

In a letter he read to Steam--boat Springs City Council members last month, former volunteer firefighter Simon O'Farrell said he felt "forced" to resign because he wasn't receiving any compensation but still was subject to routine training and other work requirements.

O'Farrell said he expressed his concerns about conforming to "state and national compensation guidelines" during a December meeting at the fire department.

"I explained at the time that the loss of the small, but important, pay-per-call of $20 would force me to find a second job to supplement my resort-industry salary, thereby eliminating time available to dedicate to volunteer firefighter shifts and training sessions," he said to council members.

O'Farrell said he was given the option of becoming a reserve member, which means he would have been paid minimum wage. However, because he is a full-time summer employee with the city, O'Farrell said he could not become a reserve.

"While I have never been motivated by compensation in my pursuit of a firefighting career, I do believe that my experience and level of training deserve a fair monetary compensation," he said.

O'Farrell also raised several other issues about the fire department, most of them regarding decreased staffing levels.

Struble said O'Farrell is a "bitter and disgruntled employee" who does not speak for the fire department. "He's trying to make it sound like we're crumbling. That's not the case."

Struble said he acknowledges the department's low staffing but said other law enforcement agencies face the same issue.

Struble said he expects to the ask the city for more staff so that the department will have enough firefighters to "run safe operations and to have some left in the reserve."

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