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January 09, 2009
Are They 'Responsible' for Fire Suppression?
A group of present and former Florida emergency medical technicians sued for overtime pay, which they had never received. They argued that although they worked with firefighters and were themselves trained to suppress fires, they rarely did so and thus should not be exempt from overtime compensation.

What happened. Firefighter/EMTs and rescue supervisors for the city of Deerfield Beach sued their employer for violating the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) by denying them overtime when they worked more than 40 hours a week. A federal district court judge reviewed FLSA’s provisions and dismissed their suit based on the law. It specifies that anyone working for a public agency and “responsible for fire suppression” is exempt. The plaintiffs appealed to the 11th Circuit, which covers Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.

What the court said. Unfortunately for the Deerfield Beach group, appellate judges had considered a very similar case from Georgia just a few months earlier. In Huff v. DeKalb County, they noted, the facts were the same: The plaintiffs had all received training in firefighting and were equipped with the “turn-out” gear worn by firefighters; however, they were only very rarely required to suppress fires. Judges had ruled them exempt because of the future possibility they would be needed to fight a fire.

In the Deerfield Beach group, only 1 of the 12 plaintiffs had ever actually fought a fire. But like the employees in Huff, they had all been trained and were equipped to do so. The plaintiffs pointed to decisions by the 9th Circuit (AK, AZ, CA, HI, ID, MT, NV, OR, WA) and the 3rd Circuit (DE, NJ, PA) that had gone the other way. But 11th Circuit judges saw big differences in those cases: Although the 9th Circuit plaintiffs had training in firefighting, they weren’t “responsible” for the activity and, more important, wouldn’t be disciplined if they refused to participate. And, many plaintiffs in the 3rd Circuit case had not even been trained in fire suppression, so judges there found them nonexempt.

But in this case, plaintiffs and the city agreed that, should they refuse to follow orders and fight a fire, they would definitely be disciplined. Relying on their belief that “responsible for” is a “forward-looking” concept, judges affirmed the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case. Gonzalez v. Deerfield Beach, U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, No. 07-11280 (11/24/08).

Point to remember: FLSA says employees “engaged in fire protection activities”—and therefore exempt—include firefighters, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, rescue workers, ambulance personnel, or hazardous materials workers.

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