Local News

Chief: Raleigh firefighters can't do off-duty work in uniform

Posted August 24, 2010 5:02 p.m. EDT
Updated August 24, 2010 6:51 p.m. EDT

— Raleigh Fire Chief John McGrath said Tuesday that firefighters in his department will no longer be allowed to wear their uniforms while working off-duty, but some people say the new policy will create problems.

After studying the issue for several months, McGrath said, he decided the line between on-duty and off-duty work had blurred, creating a potential conflict of interest.

For years, Raleigh firefighters in uniform have worked off-duty at entertainment venues like the RBC Center and the Raleigh Convention Center, performing a service called "fire watch."

If a fire alarm goes off in the venue, those on fire watch would investigate it first to determine if on-duty firefighters need to be dispatched. It prevents the need to evacuate a venue for a false alarm or minor incident.

"You get a popcorn popper that gets too close to a smoke detector (and the alarm sounds)," McGrath said. "You can't dump 20,000 people during a hockey game (for a non-emergency)."

The chief declined to say what prompted his investigation of the practice, but he said he found no wrongdoing by Raleigh Fire Department employees.

"They were doing things that the fire chief was uncomfortable with," he said.

From now on, McGrath said, fire watches can be ordered only by the city fire marshal, and no one can wear uniforms while working off-duty. The fire department will continue to provide fire watch services for city-sponsored events by using on-duty firefighters, he said.

"While Raleigh uniforms are being worn, (off-duty firefighters) are not really in the employment of the Raleigh Fire Department, although the same interests are being served. It creates a conflict of interest," he said. "If (venues) want to hire my people on a part-time basis as long as they're not on city time, they're not wearing the Raleigh uniform. They can hire them for their expertise."

Dave Olsen, general manager of the RBC Center, said he doesn't like the new policy, but he is working with McGrath to make the policy work for him and other venue managers.

"I've been in this arena business for 23 years, and I've never evacuated a building on a fire alarm," Olsen said. "It causes alarm, and that's not what we want to do. That's not what the intent is. We're hoping we work through this process – that this doesn't happen – but right now, it's a reality of what the future is going to bring us."