Firefighter car-washing flap signals bigger issues

Harmless perks firefighters enjoy may come under fire as they evolve into quasi-municipal employees

With less than a week before final votes are cast in what is the most bizarre election I remember, I was pretty sure I'd seen and heard it all. There were certainly no surprises left.

Then along came this gem out of Wiscasset, Maine.

On Nov. 8, those voters will decide a referendum issue on whether or not to allow their volunteer firefighters to continue to wash their personal vehicles at the fire station. Yes, you read that correctly.

The town manager said the practice violated town policy and several votes by the selectmen to rewrite that policy have failed.

So, after months-long pitched battles between town leaders over the merits of the time-honored tradition of firefighters lathering up and hosing down their trucks and cars, the issue is going before the voters to decide once and for all.

If your next thought is: there must be lawyers at the bottom of this, you win.

The chief concern expressed by the town manager, town lawyer and the officials who voted to end the car-washing perk is liability. They are worried that the town will be on the hook if a firefighter is injured washing their vehicle.

Occupational hazards
I know what you're thinking — who gets hurt washing a car or pickup? I thought the same thing and did a bit of digging. You won't be surprised to learn that a search for car wash injury data yields little fruit.

However, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a report in 2012 that looked at non-crash related injuries involving vehicles. For that report, NHTSA only looked at injuries severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room.

NHTSA didn't break out car washing as a separate injury category, one can imagine it's because there weren't enough of them. It did lump car washing into the category that tracked falls from the vehicle where getting in or out wasn't at play. It covered things like falling from a truck bed, slipping on ice and, yes, washing the vehicle.

All in all, that category accounted for 10 percent of the injuries. Overexertion, which included things like lifting groceries out of the trunk, was also responsible for 10 percent of the injuries. Getting struck by a vehicle or its parts — body parts caught in a closing door led that category — was number one at 33 percent and those getting hurt entering or exiting a vehicle in a distant second with 24 percent.

The average person is more than twice as likely to be hurt getting in and out of a vehicle as they are washing and waxing it. The town's reasoning is a wash bucket that doesn't hold water.

Aside from what appears to be dysfunctional local politics, there are two serious issues this referendum vote brings up.

Growing pains
The first issue is precedent. Like many fire department's, Wiscasset is paid on call. They have 25 members, one station and seven apparatus; they ran 138 calls in 2015.

It's easy enough to imagine this or similar issues playing out in every like-sized department. I would venture that the point of friction will be that the firefighters are enjoying a benefit not available to other town employees, rather than risk of injury.

I can see a parks department employee raising a stink that he should be able to wash his car at the fire station, which, when word spread, would get a utility clerk's dander up and she'd make the same request, and so on.

That would be a dicey path to navigate for municipal leaders. Give every employee access to the fire station and the risk of injury, theft and a host of other maladies jumps. Don't give it to them and firefighters now have a perceived special privilege.

The second serious problem surrounds recruiting and retaining part-time, volunteer or paid on call firefighters. For years, both have been growing increasingly difficult to do.

Make no mistake, free car washes in the apparatus bay isn't a firefighter recruiting game changer — no one signs on or stays on for that. But it's a nice little perk and another reason to get firefighters into the fire station, where they may wind up doing truck or equipment checks.

And those perks are important to morale, especially when, unlike the utilities clerk, these firefighters are often not full- or even part-time employees who enjoy full benefits of that employment.

This should have never been an issue in Wiscasset. Instead of handwringing over liabilities and waivers, the town officials should be in the fire station wringing out wash mitts as they scrub the firefighters' vehicle for them.

The Wiscasset situation is one that both mystifies and enrages. It is also one with broader implications as fire departments in countless small communities wrestle with how to balance becoming part of the municipal structure, keeping their roster full and holding on to those harmless traditions that build firefighter bonds. 

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