Family Ties and Chain of Command

Here is today’s burning question: I have been volunteering with a small rural fire district for about 11 years. I was promoted to lieutenant by the previous chief, but since he left 7 years ago I have had nothing but trouble with the new chief. I won’t bother you with the details, but my problem is this: My wife joined the department last summer. Last week out of the blue my chief told me that although she is allowed to volunteer, she is not allowed to respond to incidents where I play a supervisory role! I make about 60% of all of calls and was hoping this would allow my wife and I to spend more time together.  Now she can only respond to calls that I cannot make. Is it legal to deny someone to volunteer based on marital status / family relationships?

Answer: You need to get some local legal advice. To fully answer your question an attorney will need to look at your state laws, perhaps local ordinances, fire district regulations, fire department rules and regulations, etc. In addition, whether your department is a municipal entity (fire district) or a volunteer fire company funded by a fire district could make a huge difference. Without knowing all of that – any advice I could give you would be half-baked at best.

I agree, given your strained relationship with the chief, it sounds like he may be using your martial status as a way to harass you – but there may be a valid reason for it as well – such as nepotism laws that prohibit a person from reporting to an immediate family member. Most of those nepotism laws apply to paid employees, and you did not indicate if you are paid on call, or fully volunteer. Again the devil will be in the details.

You would be completely within your rights to ask the chief for some additional information on the martial status rule, such as when the rule was adopted and what it was based on (state law, local ethics commission ruling, attorney’s advice, etc.). If he is bluffing, these questions may be a way to smoke him out. On the other hand if he is sincere, acting on advice of counsel and trying to do the right thing it offers a way that you can be assured he is not out to make your life difficult.  You would also be within your rights to ask that the rule be put in writing  (if it has not yet been) to make sure it is applied to everyone equally.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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