On Duty Firefighters Asked to Serve Cocktails Shirtless

Here is today’s burning question: I am a career firefighter and I was recently asked by my fire chief to serve drinks to a group of women at a fund-raising event while on-duty. I know I am a hunk and I’m on the firefighter’s calendar, and I really didn’t have that big a problem with the request – particularly  since I was on duty and being paid (some of the other guys were off duty and they agreed to do it for free). However, the chief wanted us to serve the drinks shirtless. Isn’t that going too far? And by the way, what if there was a run while we were out of service for the event? Could we get in trouble?

Answer: Let me answer the question with a question: Your only concern with what happened was that you were asked to take your shirt off? Seriously? Which part of the entire episode sounded like a good idea? The use of on-duty firefighters to perform non-fire department related work at taxpayer expense? The serving of alcohol by on-duty firefighters? The placing of front-line apparatus out of service for a private event? Or was it the mere request to serve drinks topless? Frankly, I think the request to do it topless should be the LEAST of your concerns… below infringing on work that rightfully belongs to the food and beverage servers union.

Fire Chief Scott Vanderbrook, of Estero, Florida, is facing mounting criticism over his decision to use five  firefighters to attend and work at a fundraiser on December 8, 2011 held in a private gated community. The five were models in the local firefighter’s charity calendar and the event, attended by 22 women, was a private calendar signing.

Two of the five firefighters were on duty at Station 42 for the event. The station along with Engine 42 were placed out of service and a third firefighter assigned to Station 42 was detailed to another station for the event.  The two firefighters were available to respond from the event in a fire department automobile if need be.

The firefighters claim they thought the fundraiser was a public event. They were initially asked by the chief to go shirtless, serve the invitees alcohol and food, and make small talk. When the firefighters expressed their reluctance to go topless, the chief to ask them to either wear a tank top or rip the sleeves off their T-shirts.

After the event the firefighters’ union claimed the men felt like “a bunch of little puppets”. The chief has since apologized to the firefighters involved. Fire commissioners have stood solidly behind the chief’s action, saying that the chief had kept them informed about the event, that there were no rule violations, and that fire protection to the district was not compromised.

Regarding the issue of firefighters serving alcohol while on duty, the commissioners declined any knowledge of the issue. The Estero Fire Rescue Administrative Guidelines state that firefighters cannot be in possession of or consume alcohol while on duty.

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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