Sunday April 15, 2012

A bill aimed at strengthening job protection for volunteer firefighters who have to leave work to respond to emergency calls has been passed by the state House of Representatives.

Its backers say it is especially meaningful for Western Massachusetts communities, most of which rely on fire and EMS forces made up entirely of volunteers.

"I think protecting the volunteers is critical, especially for the small towns, and I think this is another layer of protection for people who would be volunteers so they won’t be in jeopardy of losing their jobs," said Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, who co-sponsored the bill along with Rep. Gailanne M. Cariddi, D-North Adams.

If passed by the Senate, the bill would not only prevent employers from firing workers who are late as a result of a fire call, it would also broaden the types of calls firefighters can respond to without fear of retribution from their employers. Under the new legislation, natural disasters, emergency medical response and hazardous material incidents are all covered.

According to the bill’s supporters, there are 8,000 volunteer firefighters in the county.

Pignatelli said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, filed the bill in response to issues arising after tornados struck locations in the Pioneer Valley.

Great Barrington Fire Chief Harry Jennings, however, said some of his volunteers have faced issues in the past.

"There have been instances where employers have threatened their firefighters," Jennings said. "I’ve had instances where employers told a volunteer they had to choose between their fire department and their jobs.

"Most employers are good, but in today’s economy, our guys have to be very careful anyhow because there’s always 10 other people who would be happy to have their job."