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Know the Compensation Rules for Volunteer Firefighters

Staffing a department with volunteer firefighters means the city has no requirements for paying the volunteers. This changes, however, if these firefighters ever stop meeting the definition of a volunteer, and the Fair Labor Standards Act regulates that definition. Once a firefighter is no longer a volunteer, then FLSA rules on minimum wage and overtime apply.

Under the FLSA, volunteer firefighters can never receive hourly pay. This requirement falls well short of establishing a complete ban on payments, however. The city or town can pay the firefighters a nominal fee as well as expense reimbursements and some reasonable benefits, and payments are taxable income. While the fee cannot be tied to productivity, it can be paid on a per-call basis, and it can be paid as a monthly or annual stipend. According to the FLSA, the fee cannot amount to more than 20 percent of the total compensation a city would pay to a full-time firefighter.

In the City of Hartsville, the effort to ensure FLSA compliance for volunteer firefighters included a review by a labor attorney and auditors, according to Rebecca Mejia-Ward, human resources manager. She said that making sure existing volunteers understand when and how they will receive a fee and expense reimbursement is important, "and new volunteer training keeps the process going."

Volunteers are also limited in the agencies they can serve, since they cannot volunteer services to the employer who pays them. Paid firefighters working for a specific fire department cannot volunteer for that same department when they are off duty. If they respond to a call, they must be compensated for hours worked based on their salary. Paid firefighters can volunteer their services for separate, independent agencies.

City employees who are not paid firefighters can volunteer for the city's fire department, since they are not providing the same service for which they are employed.

Finally, if volunteers are eligible for a South Carolina retirement system through their volunteer work, they can choose to participate and contribute to that system or waive participation. Those with an existing retirement system account must participate. The SC Public Employee Benefit Authority can determine 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.