Volunteer Firefighters Leave: What HR Should Know

The 2014 wildfire season has already started, so what better time to honor all firefighters in conjunction with May 4th, International Firefighters Day. Many inspirational quotes exist honoring the world’s heroes, but the following Maya Angelou quote is good because of its inclusive nature:

"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!"

While states like Colorado may have a better wildland fire potential outlook for 2014; other states like New Mexico, Arizona and California do not, according to the National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook. The current outlook, through June and July looks particularly ominous and higher than the normal fire threat.

As we think about the brave men and women who will engage in life-threatening activities on our behalf, we should note that not all firefighters work full-time for the fire department; in fact most are not career employees. Of 26,482 fire departments registered with the National Fire Department Census, seventy-one percent are entirely volunteer departments. That translates to approximately 750,000 volunteer firefighters across America, serving their country in a time of need in addition to other occupations and livelihoods.

While the threat of wildland fires varies by state, thirteen states have volunteer firefighter leave laws. Many of those same states have additional leave time for Civil Air Patrol, Volunteer Emergency Management, Emergency Workers and Disaster Workers. If you are an employer in one of the states with these leave laws and you also find yourself in or near a high risk wildland fire zone, you need to prepare for expected leave time for those employees which are volunteers. Oregon, California, New Mexico, Colorado and Wisconsin are just a few examples of states which should expect and prepare for employees to be absent for work to fight wildland fires.

Let’s focus in on New Mexico to see how this type of leave should be administered. According to the New Mexico Volunteer Emergency Responder Job Protection Act, employees in good association with a volunteer fire department are able to take up to ten regular business days in a calendar year in order to respond to a gubernatorial or presidential declared emergency or disaster. (Under this act, leave exists for other types of responders but this post is highlighting volunteer firefighters.)

If an employee takes more than ten days then they are subject to termination. Hopefully, circumstances won’t arise that lead to this type of separation. Prior to and over the course of the absence the employee should be communicating proactively with the employer. The employer should document all such communication so that an accurate record can be kept and maintained. If desired, an employer may request an employee provide written verification from the appropriate federal, state or local officials to verify any time served.

All in all, employers are typcially supportive of efforts to combat not only fires in our wildlands but all fires requiring the services of volunteer firefighters. Let’s keep in mind this overarching goal, as we support those who risk their lives to preserve and keep us safe.

Check out which leave types apply in your state, and don't get blindsided by the unknown.