LAWYER: Employers in Indiana can decide if on-call firefighters can leave work to answer emergency calls

Published: Jul. 7, 2023 at 7:22 PM EDT
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BLUFFTON, Ind. (WPTA) - Crews from the Bluffton Fire Department are still working to prevent the fire from reigniting at the Washington Square Building.

Thursday, nearly a dozen other departments were called to help Bluffton battle the blaze. The reason, a shortage of firefighters, was made worse due to some on-call and volunteer firefighters not being allowed to leave their day jobs to help fight the fire.

RELATED: Several departments battle large fire in downtown Bluffton

Earlier this week, 21Alive spoke with Bluffton Fire Department leaders, who say they are already short-staffed and looking for recruits.

“You know if we showed up and all we had arrived was the people we have on duty, we’d be in trouble,” Bluffton Deputy Fire Chief Chris Wolf said. “The safety of the people coming off the truck could suffer, too.”

Thursday, as smoke filled the air and the historic building went up in flames, two firefighters were trapped inside the attic and a mayday was called.

“There were very few crews outside being able to go in and rescue the two firefighters who were trapped inside,” Bluffton Fire Chief Don Craig said. “That’s a direct effect of not having the staff that we need to have to keep our people safe.”

That mayday brought fire departments from four other counties to help get the fire under control. Chief Craig says the shortage of firefighters gets worse when fires happen during the day.

“It’s rough,” Craig said. “Daytime weekday fires are the roughest to get people here.”

Part of the problem is that some employers of on-call firefighters won’t let them leave work, Craig says. On-call firefighters are considered part-time and are paid by the department. They say the problem also impacts volunteer firefighters.

But are companies allowed to do this?

IU law professor Jody Madeira said the law allows on-call and volunteer firefighters to leave for emergency calls, but there are some exceptions.

“If you are employed by a private employer and you are a volunteer firefighter and you have notified your employer in writing, basically, you can’t be disciplined from being absent from your employment or from your job,” Madeira said. “But there’s an exception to this, and that is if the employer deems you an essential employee. So, if you are an essential employee, the employer does not have to release you.”

Madeira said the law also doesn’t apply to on-call firefighters with government (public) jobs. For that to change, she said the state legislature would have to step in.

“Nobody realizes we are here until they need us,” Wolf said. “But we need help.”

Despite the problem with firefighters responding during the day, fire departments across 21Country say they just need more people.

If you are interested in becoming a firefighter for the Bluffton Fire Department you must be 18 years or older, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and a valid Indiana Drivers license.

Applications are due July 21 at 5 p.m. To learn more, click here.

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