For more than three decades, Michael Schaffer has willingly run into burning buildings.
He’s performed CPR on children. He’s freed people trapped in crashed vehicles. He’s even rescued cats and dogs.
Last June, the union Schaffer has belonged to for 21 years brought him up on charges for volunteering with the fire department where he resides.
The International Association of Fire Fighters forbids members from volunteering for departments that already employ some IAFF firefighters or are viewed as targets by the IAFF for expansion.
Schaffer’s hometown firehouse is all-volunteer and employs no union workers directly. But through mutual aid agreements, the firehouse — in the West Berlin section of Berlin Township — makes runs in neighboring towns that employ some IAFF firefighters.
Rather than risk expulsion by his “brothers” for doing something that he loves and that runs in the family, Schaffer resigned last month from his union, Cherry Hill Firefighters Local 2663.
Now, in a department of more than 100 paid firefighters, he is the only career firefighter who is not a member of the IAFF.
But he may not be the only one for long: The union warns it’s bringing other members up on the same charges.
Schaffer said he was a proud union man for more than two decades and he’d love to be a union man again, but he’s puzzled by the IAFF rule that led to his situation.
Violating the rule
Schaffer takes some responsibility for the events that led to his resignation from Local 2663.
“The IAFF bylaws state that career firemen are not allowed to do any kind of duty in another IAFF town. I knew that. It’s my fault,” Schaffer said.
But Schaffer said he wasn’t the only Cherry Hill firefighter violating the rule, which until last summer had not been enforced.
It’s common practice for firefighters who don’t live where they work to volunteer with the station that serves their neighborhood, firefighters say.
For instance, Berlin Township’s lone fire company comprises 50 volunteers, quite a few of whom are career firefighters in bigger towns.
But leaders of Cherry Hill’s two IAFF locals, 2633 and 3198, began issuing warnings last year that a crackdown was under way.
“As union president I’ve sworn to protect and uphold the bylaws,” said Cherry Hill Local 2663 President Joe Gerace in a five-minute interview he said he had to cut short. “If you don’t follow the rules, then you don’t join the union, or you withdraw your membership.”
Schaffer had gone on runs within West Berlin, which was not a violation since it’s all-volunteer. But he’s also gone on runs with West Berlin into nearby Winslow. The IAFF local there not only had no desire to enforce the volunteering rule — it told Cherry Hill’s local that it needed the extra help.
In a letter to Gerace last November, Victor Farinelli, shop steward for Winslow’s IAFF members, wrote: “During the hours that we work, we get little to no assistance from our volunteer stations. We cover 58 square miles with one crew, and for the safety of our members, we need all the help we can get. We really appreciate the professional fighters having our back some days.”
Winslow’s department has 15 career firefighters who belong to the union, and 80 active volunteers.
“While we agree with your thoughts on this subject, please understand that in no way are your members stopping us from hiring more firefighters. We have just hired our 15th firefighter and another is in this year’s budget,” Farinelli continued. “We are new to this, and don’t want to create issues with other locals but instead want to create good working relationships. As we grow, we will be looking for advice and guidance. Please, if you have any question with this matter or any others in the future, feel free to reach out to us directly.”
Farinelli said he never heard back from Gerace.
Gerace would not directly respond to questions about why he chose to enforce the rule when other fire departments do not. He did not respond to follow-up calls asking why he never replied to Farinelli and why he was enforcing a rule when its purpose — eliminating IAFF competition — did not seem to exist.
“I don’t write the rules, I just follow the rules,” Gerace said in the shortened interview. “There are others out there and they’re all coming up on charges. Michael was just the first one.”
Cherry Hill Fire Chief Robert Giorgio said the matter was a labor dispute and did not involve his fire district. He did not return additional requests for comment.
Money vs. help
Union members acknowledge that volunteer firefighters are a touchy subject. The point of the union rule is to eliminate obstacles to IAFF expansion, but towns such as Winslow and Berlin Township insist they cannot afford the salaries, pensions and benefits demanded by mostly career departments such as Cherry Hill’s. Nor, they point out, would residents and taxpayers stand for the additional expense.
“Especially with the economic times, if we went to a paid department, it would kill our town with taxes. People would have to move out,” said West Berlin Fire Chief Joe Jackson.
Jackson, who is also Berlin Township’s police chief, said he backs Schaffer in this dispute.
“The IAFF’s official version is that they do not want their members working for entities they view as competition,” said David Finger, spokesman for the Washington-based National Volunteer Fire Council. “If there were no volunteer firefighters and no private ambulance services employing their members on a part-time basis, then those communities would have to look for full-time firefighters to cross-train their personnel and provide more emergency services.
“I don’t know if they would acknowledge that as a motivation,” Finger said. “They would say it’s a health and safety issue.”
Most communities in the United States are protected by volunteer firefighters, whom Finger says save taxpayers $40 billion every year. All cities and most large towns like Cherry Hill, however, depend on an almost entirely paid service.
The national IAFF declined to comment on the matter.
Schaffer must still pay $35 out of every pay period to the union because of contract obligations, though he receives none of the union benefits. He said he harbors no ill will toward the IAFF, but hopes union leaders rethink their approach to enforcing the rule.
“I don’t work for the union. I work for the fire department. This in no way is going to affect my job at all,” Shaffer said. “I don’t feel any repercussions so far. I stood by what I thought was right.”
His backers have some pointed words for his predicament, however.
“He loves doing his job and he does it 24 hours a day,” Jackson said. “In lieu of going through the process of being brought up on charges, he decided to take a stand. He believes the union should not tell him what to do when he’s off duty.”
His father, Michael Schaffer Sr., started as a volunteer firefighter at age 16 in 1963. He retired from the Cherry Hill Fire Department in 1992.
“Guys for the longest time could be a career firefighter in Cherry Hill and volunteer for their own communities to give a little back,” recalled the elder Schaffer, who praised the township’s fire department and Giorgio’s leadership.
“The union took it too many steps too far,” he said. “Not one firefighter responding to an emergency alters the hiring procedure for that municipality.”