Volunteer firefighters are an incredibly important part of many firefighting operations. The International Fire Chiefs Association counts three quarters of all fire departments in the United States as dependent on the work of volunteers.
Volunteer firefighters are a dedicated group of people considering the difficult and dangerous work they do and the irregular hours they work. Municipalities often seek to find ways, other than an hourly wage, to compensate their volunteer firefighters, but they must be careful when doing so because of the rules of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
The FLSA is a federal statute that sets rules on minimum wage and overtime pay. It also sets the definition of volunteers, and if volunteer firefighters no longer meet that definition, then the FLSA's wage and overtime rules will begin to apply to them.
Volunteer firefighters can never receive hourly pay because of the FLSA, but this rule is not the same as a complete ban on payments to volunteers. For example, a city or town can provide a nominal fee for the service of volunteer firefighters.
The fees paid to volunteer firefighters cannot be tied to productivity, but they can be paid on a per-call basis, and they can be paid as a monthly or annual stipend. The FLSA states that fees to volunteers cannot be paid in an amount that would be greater than 20% of the total compensation that the city or town would pay to a full-time firefighter.
The municipality can also reimburse expenses and provide reasonable benefits. In the case of all of these payment types, the payment is considered taxable income.
Paid firefighters cannot volunteer their off-duty time to serve in their employer's fire department. However, city employees who are not paid firefighters can volunteer as firefighters because that volunteer work is not the same service for which they are employed.
Volunteers may be eligible for participation in either the South Carolina Retirement System or Police Officers Retirement System as a result of their volunteer work. If they have an existing retirement system account, then volunteers would be required to participate if they are eligible. Otherwise, they can either choose to participate and contribute to the system for which they are eligible, or not participate. The SC Public Employee Benefit Authority can answer questions about whether a firefighter is allowed to waive participation.
This information is partially taken from Managing Volunteer Firefighters for FLSA Compliance: A Guide for Fire Chiefs and Community Leaders, a publication of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.