NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Council should pass amendment to allow MDA ‘Fill the Boot’ campaign in public right-of-way

The Fill the Boot campaign has been a tremendous success across the country since 1954 through a partnership with the International Association of Fire Fighters. Local firefighters have traditionally stationed themselves throughout the city to collect money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in the public right-of-way.

Allen County drivers are familiar with the annual three-day campaign in which firefighters collect donations at intersections throughout the area for three days each August. Many campaigns have already taken place throughout the country.

Last year the city asked the firefighters not to collect donations from along streets and medians as they have for decades but rather move to safer areas, such as shopping center parking lots. The result was a significant drop in donations.

The Fill the Boot campaign raised more than $107,000 locally in 2017. Last year’s donations dropped to less than $40,000 after the new policy took effect.

Tuesday Fort Wayne City Council approved changes to the city’s panhandling ordinance that would once again allow firefighters to raise money the way they had been for years. Firefighters who volunteer to participate in the boot campaign remain on duty.

We think the Council’s proposal, which passed in a 6-2 preliminary vote this week, should be passed in a final vote in Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

Councilman Russ Jehl, R-2nd, introduced the amendment, which would allow firefighters to use city streets, curbs and median strips for the annual campaign while limiting who can solicit in the public right-of-way to city employees over the age of 18. It also qualifies that such permission is subject to approval from the city administration.

Councilmen John Crawford, R-at large, and Glynn Hines, D-6th, were the two who voted against the amendment, saying they opposed it due to legal and safety concerns.

“The ‘Fill the Boot’ campaign is a mainstay partnership in Fort Wayne between the fire department and the Muscular Dystrophy Association,” Jehl told News-Sentinel.com earlier this week. “The administration cited safety concerns, but firefighters are big boys and girls who want to help sick kids, and MDA is giving the department access to their insurance policy.”

Fire Chief Eric Lahey said, however, “I fully plan to exercise my ability to control the workforce while they’re on duty and not allow them to collect in the public right-of-way, even if this ordinance passes.”

Lahey justifies his opposition to the council ordinance amendment, saying, “Our mission is to prevent the loss of life and keep the citizens in our community safe. Positioning our firefighters in the right-of-way on city streets puts their safety at risk. It also puts the safety of drivers at risk.”

Mayoral spokesman John Perlich voiced the city administration’s misgivings in a statement Tuesday, saying, “We appreciate and support the efforts of the MDA drive, but the safety of our firefighters is critical. Safety is being compromised under this proposed ordinance change and that concerns us.”

We certainly appreciate concerns for the safety of our firefighters and others in soliciting public donations during the boot campaign. We think, however, that eliminating the way it’s been done for so long is an unnecessary restriction, and that we should give more credit to our public safety veterans in the conduct of boot campaign solicitations.

Firefighters, after all, are among the most safety-conscious public servants we have.

“There’s inherent risk in everything that we do,” said fire union President Jeremy Bush in a news report following Tuesday’s Council meeting. “We understand that risk. Our firefighters are trained to operate in the public right-of-way. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t heightened risk associated with collecting out there, because there is. But the cost versus benefit of that is us providing cutting-edge technologies, research for this debilitating disease.”

We don’t object to the city and firefighters choosing to find more effective ways to raise funds or safer places to do so. But we also believe firefighters are quite capable of making provisions for safety and using extreme caution in following the same standards they would any time they are operating on the roadways.

That’s why we support the council amendment and ask that Lahey and city officials work with firefighters in keeping the Boot Campaign as successful as it has been in the past. Many lives are depending on it.