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Source: Kokomo Tribune

Controversial Fill the Boot campaign to begin Wednesday

By George Myers
KOKOMO - Kokomo firefighters will kick off the department’s annual Fill the Boot fundraiser on Wednesday, roughly a month after department personnel and city officials publicly debated a new restriction placed on where firefighters could collect money.

As announced Monday in a press release by the Muscular Dystrophy Association, members of the Kokomo Professional Firefighters Local 396 will collect money starting at 9 a.m. on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday at various intersections throughout the city.

Those intersections include Washington and Superior streets; Center Road and Cartwright Drive; Apperson Way and Morgan Street; Dixon and Alto roads; Dixon Road and Jefferson Street; and Boulevard Street and Indiana 931.

“Each year, Kokomo firefighters dedicate countless hours of their time participating in Fill the Boot drives and at MDA Summer Camp,” said MDA Executive Director Sonja Cronin in the release, noting more than 90 firefighters will take part in the campaign.

“We’re grateful for their steadfast drive and uncommon caring toward the kids and adults we serve and look forward to working together once again to make this Fill the Boot season a huge success.”

Controversy surrounding the fundraiser became public at a Sept. 26 Common Council meeting when firefighters expressed frustration at the city’s decision to prohibit them from standing in roadways to collect money.

Instead, the city requested that firefighters stand on sidewalks or in front of local businesses. At the time and since the meeting, city officials have defended the decision as a necessary precaution focused on firefighter safety, a notion strongly disputed by some in the Kokomo Fire Department.

Ultimately, local firefighters decided to discontinue the debate. This week, firefighters will stand on sidewalks and in front of fire stations to collect money for Fill the Boot.

“I’m glad that they agreed to go ahead and do it,” said Kokomo Fire Chief Nick Glover. “Some fundraising is obviously better than none.”

Also excited to get started on Fill the Boot was Kokomo firefighter and Local 396 President Chris Frazier, although he characterized the start of this year’s campaign as a bittersweet one.

Frazier said the move out of Kokomo roadways could cost Fill the Boot as much as two-thirds of fundraising, according to MDA estimates. Overall, the campaign raised on average $22,000 per year for 22 local families before the positioning change.

“We’re just doing it like they told us we had to do it,” said Frazier. “We would rather do it and collect some money than not do it at all. We were never looking to not do it; we were looking to do it like we always had.”

Frazier said that amid the controversy he met with Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp, during which the city’s position was quickly reiterated.

Frazier also called the city’s safety concerns “completely erroneous,” and noted the fire department still responds to all calls while Fill the Boot is taking place, stating there are no adverse effects to doing the fundraiser while on duty.

“Now, we’re just going to do the same thing except we are going to stand on the sidewalks, and we are going to see how that works,” he said.

In response, Tharp said he is excited that firefighters decided to get started on Fill the Boot and again referenced the need for the controversial safety precautions.

During an interview Monday, Tharp also noted that he had multiple conversations with Frazier to reaffirm and explain the city’s position as “settled policy.”

“We are very glad that they reconsidered and are going to go ahead and go through with Fill the Boot,” he said. “We think that Fill the Boot is a great program and we think that this is a fantastic way to raise money for MDA while keeping our firefighters as safe as they can be while doing so.”

As Tharp previously noted, a decision was made last month by the Columbus, Ohio, fire department to halt its Fill the Boot campaign after a firefighter was hit by a car.

According to a USA Today report in October 2015, at least seven U.S. cities or counties by that point had stopped firefighters from collecting donations at busy intersections due to safety concerns. Tharp said concerns about Kokomo’s campaign began after the report.

George Myers can be reached at 765-454-8585, by email at george.myers@kokomotribune.com or on Twitter @gpmyerskt.

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