by Jeffrey High
Chris Olbu really enjoys being a firefighter.
It runs in the family. His dad is a volunteer firefighter. His father-in-law is a volunteer fire chief. His brother-in-law is a volunteer, so is his brother. His wife is a former volunteer firefighter.
You get the picture.
“I guess I was just born to be a fireman,” Olbu (right) says. “I really enjoy the work, and I like being able to make a difference in the community.”
So the 32 year old Stanwood High School grad was puzzled when he received a “Brother Olbu” letter from the Camano Island Professional Firefighters Union saying that his status as a volunteer Fire Captain at the Mabana Station with Camano Island Fire and Rescue had become “unacceptable” to the union.
A lot of island residents, the Fire Chief, and most of the Fire Commissioners were puzzled as well…
In fire department parlance, Olbu was what is known as a “two-hatter” – a fire fighter who works professionally but also volunteers. According to the National Volunteer Fire Council (NVFC), “there are close to 30,000 career firefighters across the country that are volunteering as firefighters – generally in their hometowns – when they are off-duty. We refer to these individuals as “two-hatters.” Unfortunately, many two-hatters face pressure from their union or employer to quit volunteering.”
“Generally, it’s a money thing,” said NVFC’s Dave Finger. “Unions don’t want volunteers who work full time in other union locals taking away paying jobs in their territory.”
Olbu’s situation seems different.
He started volunteering at age 16, and continued his service to the community during 8 years in the Coast Guard reserve and over 9 years of full time work as a firefighter for the Boeing Company. For 8 of those years, no one seemed to have a problem with his status as a Camano Fire volunteer while also working as a professional firefighter at Boeing.
Olbu is the guy you want following behind you if you get in a car accident. In addition to being a trained firefighter and EMT (Emergency Medical Technician), he’s trained in water rescue as well. He’s even trained to come get you if you get stuck halfway down the side of a cliff.
“We on the South End have a wonderful volunteer fire force, but cannot afford to lose anyone of this caliber,” says Carolyn Klein, a Camano Island resident. “We feel that the stability of the volunteer fire force is in jeopardy and that the union has put the citizens of Camano in jeopardy as well.”
In 2008 the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) wanted to make it easier for local unions to crack down on “two-hatters”, so they passed a resolution that changed their constitution to read, in part:
“Working a secondary job part-time, paid on call, volunteer or otherwise as a firefighter, emergency medical services worker, public safety or law enforcement officer, or as a worker in a related service, whether in the public or private sector, where such job is within the work jurisdiction of any affiliate or which materially erodes the conditions of work of any affiliate. Upon a finding of guilt of working a secondary job in violation of this subsection, it is recommended that the penalty include disqualification from holding office in any affiliate and/or expulsion from membership for the period that the misconduct persists. Charges filed for the misconduct described in this subsection shall be preferred by a member of the charged party’s local and/or a member of an adversely affected affiliate.”
In other words, all the local union has to do is file a complaint with Olbu’s Boeing local, which would put his “in good standing” union status at Boeing in jeopardy. Since Boeing is a union shop, only members in “good-standing” can be employed.
So Olbu was forced to choose between serving his community or keeping his job.
A Growing Trend
According to the NVFC, this tactic by firefighter’s locals is part of a growing trend:
In March (2010), an article published on www.mycentraljersey.com and reprinted in the National Volunteer Fire Council’s (NVFC) E-update reported the story of Michael Schaffer, a career firefighter who resigned from the Cherry Hill Firefighters Local 2663 under pressure from his union because he serves as a volunteer firefighter in Berlin Township, where he lives, during off-duty hours. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) prohibits its members from volunteering as emergency responders in jurisdictions where an IAFF local is present and/or looking to expand into.According to the article, “Rather than risk expulsion by his ‘brothers’ for doing something that he loves and that runs in the family, Schaffer resigned [in February] from his union…” The article also indicates that the union plans to bring up other members on charges in the future.
Schaffer’s ordeal is only one instance of two-hatters being pressured to quit volunteering or leave the union. In 2006, Vincent Pereira, a career firefighter with the Port Reading Fire District No. 2 and a volunteer firefighter in the Colonia Volunteer Fire Company, was expelled from the Woodbridge Fire Fighters Association, Local 290, for his volunteer activities. Pereira, who like Schaffer lives and works in New Jersey, quit volunteering when he joined Local 290, only to re-join after discovering that a number of fellow union members were volunteering during off-duty hours, despite the IAFF’s prohibition.
20 years ago Camano Fire was an all-volunteer department with over 100 volunteers. Today, the 90 member department is made up of about 35% full-time professionals with the other 65% being part-time and volunteer firefighters.
When the fire administration decides to fill a “seat” with a full-time professional firefighter, they actually have to hire 4 people to fill that seat. That’s because full-time for a fire station literally means “full time”: 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Start considering sick leave and vacations and it becomes apparent that adding professional firefighters to a department gets real expensive, real fast.
Given economic realities: a bad economy, residential tax base, and a fairly small population – it’s safe to say that Camano Fire will always need a substantial number of trained volunteers and part-time fire fighters to augment the professional ranks.
Last year the Mabana station had as many as nine volunteers, including the volunteer fire chief. The volunteers for each station generally come from in and around the area of the fire station. Now the station is down to five volunteers, including the chief. This means the volunteers have to put in the maximum amount of hours allowed, and the area gets back-up coverage from the other island stations.
“The problem here is that the paid fire fighters are trying to force small communities such as ours to hire more paid fire fighters and eventually eliminate the part-time fire fighters and the volunteer force,” resident Barbara Garnett says. “In the State of Washington, 70% of all fire fighters are volunteers. The unions are holding our communities hostage by preventing experienced fire fighters from volunteering in the communities in which they live.”
When Klein, Garnett, and other residents heard about Olbu’s situation, they did what they could to get to the bottom of things. “We took this to the Fire Commissioners, who were totally against Chris leaving,” Klein says.
Their group met with the Local 4033 President, Tony Smith and the Vice-President, David Skrinde at the home of one of their members. They asked why Olbu could not be “grandfathered” into the department since the union had allowed him to be a volunteer for the previous 8 years while working for the Boeing Co. “We were told that the union membership voted to have him resign,” Klein says. “A reason was not given.”
According to Garnett and Klein, Smith agreed to take this issue back to the membership for a re-vote, once he had met with Olbu. That meeting apparently took place, but no further word came from Smith despite phone calls, email attempts, and one in-person request to a member of union leadership.
Who’s in charge here?
When they got wind of the letter issued to Olbu by the local union, four members of the Board of Fire Commissioners fired off a letter of their own. It said, in part, that the position of the Camano Firefighter’s union “has caused great concern within the Camano Island Community, the volunteer ranks, and with the Board of Fire Commissioners… We can think of no finer example of a person who personifies and epitomizes the traits of a solid citizen who has committed his life to service to his country and community.”
The recent union action “may be sanctioned within union policy,” the letter continued, “but it is not within the best interest of the citizens of Camano Island.”
But beyond writing letters, there wasn’t much Camano Fire could do.
“Chris is a union member with Boeing Fire,” added Chief Mike Ganz. “As such this issue rests with the unions.”
Camano Island Fire and Rescue is organized like most fire districts around the state. It is run by an elected board of commissioners, which sets overall policy and approves budget and expenditures.
Day to day operation, including personnel decisions, are handled by the Fire Chief and his assistants. Although the professional firefighters union has no official role in fire department administration beyond the negotiated contract, back-door methods like this do allow them some influence that the Chief and Commissioners are helpless to prevent.
That’s the question on a lot of people’s minds these days.
Given the trouble recruiting and retaining qualified volunteers, why would the union force someone even they acknowledge as “an asset to this department, the volunteer ranks, and the paid staff” to resign?
- Did they think he was taking paying work away from a union member?
- Are they trying to get more full-time professionals hired?
- Do they want a raise?
- Are they retaliating against the organized opposition to the fire levy by some south-end residents?
- Is it a personal beef?
- Or, are they just being ornery?
At this point, no one really knows because the union isn’t talking.
( Editor’s note: Camano Community contacted the entire board of Local 4033 for comment on this matter. As of press time, we had not heard from anyone at the union.)
Most everyone involved says the union has dug in it’s heels on the issue, so Olbu’s status with Camano Fire won’t be changing anytime soon. But a lot of folks would like to see him return; the sooner the better.
“Chris Olbu was a sixteen year volunteer with Camano Island Fire and Rescue as well as a member of the United States Coast Guard,” says Chief Ganz. “If there was some type of change in Chris’ status we certainly would love to have him back, but I fully understand that is not possible at this time.”
Klein and other residents are frustrated with the situation, but glad the word is finally getting out. “We are not quacks, agitators, trouble makers or protesters,” Klein says. “We are citizens and taxpayers that are concerned about our fire department, and the safety of all the residents on the island.”
As for Olbu, he’s not letting the kerfuffle about his status bother him. He intends to keep working at Boeing and is working toward getting a promotion to the rank of Captain in the future. At Boeing, Captain is a management position – he’ll no longer be a member of the local IAFF union.
So he can return to being a volunteer for Camano Fire.
“It’s not a matter of if,” Olbu says. “It’s just a matter of when.”
“I’ll be back.”