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Source: Kokomo Tribune

City officials, firefighters debate decision to keep Fill the Boot out of roadways

By George Myers
KOKOMO - Kokomo firefighters and city officials began a public dispute this week over a new restriction placed on the fire department’s annual Fill the Boot fundraiser, a disagreement which has stalled this year's campaign.

Local firefighters and Muscular Dystrophy Association representatives brought attention to the controversy at a Kokomo Common Council meeting Monday, where they expressed frustration at the city’s decision to prohibit firefighters from standing in roadways to collect money.

City officials have defended the decision as a necessary precaution focused on firefighter safety.

But while the city has given firefighters the OK to stand on sidewalks or in front of local businesses, MDA representatives argue that moving away from the middle of the street could eliminate two-thirds of anticipated fundraising. 

Overall, the campaign raises on average $22,000 per year for 22 local families, according to MDA Divisional Director Kate Shea.

“Unfortunately, that limits our ability to really interact with the flow of traffic very well, so when you’re on the sidewalk obviously you can’t really connect with drivers,” said Shea, who referenced recent medical advancements and credited Fill the Boot campaigns.

Shea noted that various cities in Indiana have strict anti-street solicitation ordinances but said no other cities in northern Indiana have moved MDA campaigns out of roadways.

City officials, though, argued that safety concerns associated with standing amongst heavy traffic warranted the decision to move firefighters to the sidewalk.

“There have been a large number of cities and counties and other communities around the country that have made this exact same decision for the exact same reason,” said Kokomo Deputy Mayor David Tharp. “Firefighter safety is one of our top concerns, and standing in the middle of the street to collect donations is an unsafe way to go about this.”

As Tharp noted, a decision was made earlier this 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 Oct. 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. 

“We absolutely support the fire department raising money for MDA,” continued Tharp. “We have given them multiple other opportunities to do that, to do Fill the Boot in other ways, same as they do in many other communities around the country.

“The difference is there are a lot more examples of firefighters getting killed doing this and firefighters getting hurt.”

Initially, the fire department planned to hold this year’s Fill the Boot campaign from Aug. 24 to 26, according to Jake Lipinski, a 15-year veteran of the Kokomo Fire Department and vice president of the Professional Firefighters Local 396.

Lipinski said the KFD has been holding a Fill the Boot campaign for roughly 30 years, and that this is the first year the department has had “an issue with safety concerns.”

About a week before the campaign was scheduled to begin, Lipinski said firefighters were notified by Kokomo Fire Chief Nick Glover that they no longer could collect money while standing in the street.

In light of the decision, Fill the Boot has not been held, and fire department personnel have continued to fight the restriction.

Lipinski said frustration has risen in part because any calls to Kokomo Mayor Greg Goodnight or Tharp have been returned by Glover.

In an interview, Glover said he is in favor of the city administration’s decision, citing safety concerns like texting that didn’t exist 10 years ago. Glover said he also urged firefighters to work with their union to partner with local businesses.

“I don’t feel comfortable with them standing in the roadway anymore,” he said, noting that safety concerns have been expressed to him by various firefighters in recent years.

However, Lipinski said firefighters like himself and Nichole Duff, KFD’s MDA coordinator, are anxious to speak with officials in the mayor’s office.

“Any time they’d like to discuss it with us, we would love to discuss it with them,” he said. “And we believe that maybe we could persuade them to let us do it, because it’s such a great thing for this community and these families that benefit from it.”

“If you look at the fire department, as a group, it’s our tradition. When we’ve been doing it for so many years it’s hard to take,” added Duff.

Lipinski also questioned such safety concerns, saying “we’ve been dealing with that for the 30 years that we’ve been doing it, and we make sure that people are well aware for a long distance that we are here.”

In contrast, Tharp highlighted the department’s decision to not yet hold a fundraising campaign. He also questioned the firefighters' choice to comment publicly before the Common Council, a body which has no control over Fill the Boot.

“Frankly, we’re surprised that the fire department has thus far refused to do Fill the Boot in the other ways,” he said. “Remember, firefighters get paid to do this. We allow them and encourage them to participate in MDA’s Fill the Boot while they’re on the clock. They are allowed to do it on the sidewalks, at community locations…they’ve refused to participate in Fill the Boot that way.

“People in this community are deeply generous as a part of our character here. The firefighters refusal to collect money for the MDA is surprising and for them to mislead folks about the process is troubling,” he added later.

Moving forward, though, Lipinski said firefighters are hoping to find a solution and get started with the campaign.

Shea said the fundraiser could still raise an average amount of funds if it’s held before the start of cold weather and firefighters are allows in roadways. 

“We’re staying positive with this thing,” said Lipinski. “We want to get out there in the street, and we want to do this. We think it’s a wonderful thing, so we just need to get back out there in the street and collect our money.”

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

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