What makes a volunteer, a volunteer?

May 4, 2022

Questions about volunteerism and what it means to be a volunteer have been on the rise in recent years, both at the local and state levels. The definitions around volunteerism, particularly in the fire service, are loose and often unclear, leaving the waters muddied for volunteers and fire department leadership.

As the years went by, the International Association of Fire Chiefs saw a need for clarification of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), the guiding document for defining ‘volunteer.’ In 2007, IAFC and its Volunteer and Combination Officers Section (VCOS) published “Managing Volunteer Firefighters for FSLA Compliance: A Guide for Fire Chiefs and Community Leaders” to help address the question: What makes a volunteer, a volunteer? More specifically, the manual was published “In an effort to ease some of the confusion in applying the FLSA volunteer exemption.”

As interpreted in the manual, a volunteer is: an individual who receives no compensation or is paid expenses, reasonable benefits, or a nominal fee for services performed; and said services are not the same type of services the individual is employed to perform for the same agency. A bona fide volunteer performs: different work for the same agency; same or similar work for a separate agency; different work for a separate agency.

The IAFC manual takes a deep-dive into each part of the above definitions of volunteer and bona fide volunteer. The manual includes an example chart for calculating nominal fees, a recommended to-do list if a union is present, and a checklist for managing volunteer firefighters.

View and download “Managing Volunteer Firefighters for FSLA Compliance: A Guide for Fire Chiefs and Community Leaders.”

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