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Firefighters fear they'll get the boot

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GREENFIELD — A traditional fundraiser of the Greenfield Fire Territory could be in jeopardy, as some city officials are expressing concerns about safety and liability for curbside fundraising.

Many firefighters participate in the annual “Fill the Boot” campaign to benefit the Muscular Dystrophy Association. Carrying big firefighter boots, they solicit donations from motorists stopped at traffic lights. Greenfield’s campaign is one of the most successful ones in the state.

But there’s one problem: A city law prohibits people from soliciting money in the streets.

While firefighters have been able to run their campaign the past couple of years, they’re now being told that the law should be formally changed before they hit the streets this year.

 “We were told we weren’t going to be allowed back in the streets this year,” said Scott Elliott, a local firefighter and coordinator of the Greenfield boot campaign. “We want to change that if at all possible.”

Elliott was among a room full of firefighters who came to the Greenfield City Council meeting Wednesday, asking the board to amend the ordinance to allow firefighters to collect donations in streets.

Donations are used to send children with muscular disease to summer camps, and the fundraisers even brought a past participant to the meeting to tell the council about his experience at summer camp.

“He loves it; he talks about it all the time,” said Jeff Hexamer of his son, Tyler, 8.

But whether it’s appropriate or safe for firefighters to approach vehicles stopped briefly in traffic is up for debate.

“In my opinion, while this ordinance is in place, they can’t do it,” said city attorney Tom Billings, who raised red flags last summer about the program. “I don’t want one of our firemen getting hurt and then claiming worker’s compensation.”

Billings points out the ordinance, passed in 2002, does not prohibit them from standing on sidewalks or in front of stores to ask for money.

But Elliott and firefighter Jason Davis say they have much more success when they’re in the street. People don’t want to be bothered when they’re out shopping, Davis said, but they’re happy to reach for spare change when they’re sitting at a red light.

“At the end of the day, your boot is so heavy with the change you’ve collected during the day; it’s unreal,” he said.

Last year, local firefighters raised more than $17,000; in 2012 they raised $13,000. The figures show strong support from the community; Greenfield collected the most change per capita in the state last year, said Chief James Roberts.  But when they collected in front of stores from 2006 to 2009, they only raised about $2,000 a year.

Roberts said the donation drive is dear to the hearts of his department, but he agrees it should only be done safely.

“Apparently, last year one of them walked backwards into an area he shouldn’t have been in,” Roberts said. “It’s a concern of the city attorney; we’ll do everything we can to make it safer.”

Roberts said his staff only collects at red lights and does not walk in front of cars. Safety measures will be emphasized if they’re allowed to collect again, he said.

The Muscular Dystrophy Association provides liability insurance for the firefighters, said Amber Lannert, divisional director for the organization. The MDA has a $1 million policy for local departments, but could provide more coverage if local officials are hesitant, she said.

“The MDA has been doing this program for 60 years,” Lannert said. “Hundreds of thousands of firefighters across the country stand on street corners collecting funds for families.”

While Lannert said other communities have laws on the books against collecting in the streets, it’s common for councils to be willing to make an amendment.

The city council was open to making an amendment, though they tabled a decision to give the city attorney time to review legal documents and liability insurance.

Councilman Jason Horning, also a firefighter, said the intent was to prevent panhandlers from asking for money along the streets. It wasn’t the intention to prevent firefighters from collecting for charity, he said.

“Back then, it was an oversight,” Horning said.

Firefighters typically collect every August, but they said they can collect later this year if the council decides to amend the law. Mayor Chuck Fewell said he asked them to come before the council because he was also concerned about liability.

“If we stop some car, somebody’s not paying attention and hits them in the rear end, we have a compounding problem,” Fewell said. “I just want to make sure we’re doing the right thing.”

The firefighters left the meeting confident the council heard their concern and was willing to consider a change.

“I’m very hopeful. I really am,” Davis said. “Our biggest challenge is the legal side.”

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