Union leader Harold Schaitberger makes no effort to conceal the place he think volunteer firefighters should hold in America today.

In tax-poor rural areas, the president of the International Association of Firefighters says, they play an "honorable role." Beyond that, he sees little use for them.

"In this new century of ours, anyplace that has any kind of population density, any kind of industry and certainly the financial resources ... is there any excuse for having people volunteering to provide such a critical public-safety service?" Schaitberger said. " ... We're not going to have volunteer police forces. We're not going to have volunteer teachers."

The 267,000-member union has sought to increase its membership in an in-your-face campaign targeting volunteers as one of its main obstacles.

Union locals have enforced a clause in the association's constitution forbidding members to also serve as volunteers, triggering legal battles from Toronto to Washington, D.C.

That clause hasn't always sat well with members in New York, where many city firefighters began as volunteers and continue to serve in their hometowns. The city's fire unions haven't taken action against any members who volunteer, but tensions have risen lately.

"We ask you not to be a volunteer firefighter in your community," Capt. Peter L. Gorman, president of the fire officers local, told members in July. "... At the very least, please leave your volunteer chiefs' cars at home."

Elsewhere, association members actively highlight what they see as the slip-ups and weaker performance of volunteers with whom they serve in combination departments.

And the union spent $1 million to pass a response-time standard in 2001 aimed in part at driving communities to replace their volunteers with paid firefighters.

The National Fire Protection Association standard, known as 1710, calls on paid and combination fire departments to have a fully staffed engine at a fire scene within six minutes. It was supported by years of studies but opposed by cities because of the hiring it would demand.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In 1992, hundreds of Long Island volunteers joined their peers in voting down a standard that included volunteer departments, arguing it was unrealistic for them. In 2001, though, the union paid to enroll 2,600 of its members in the association and bused them to the meeting to outvote the opposition.

"We first tried to raise the bar on adequate staffing and we got our -- -- kicked by a bunch of volunteers," Schaitberger told his cheering firefighters just before the vote. "... I believe we're ready to do the -- -- kicking today."

Chronic friction

This rancorous history has led to chronic friction that is hard to disguise, even in smoothly functioning combination departments, such as Montgomery County, Md.

When two Long Island volunteer chiefs stopped by the Rockville, Md., fire station one day not long ago to learn more about Montgomery's methods, Alan Hinde warned them: "You're going to get clobbered."

Hinde, then Rockville's volunteer chief, had just filed a complaint with the county citing a "hostile work environment" created by the union, whose local was detailing volunteer lapses on its Web site.

"If we're going to have any kind of collaborative working arrangement, that doesn't lead to it," said Hinde, now chief of the county's volunteer division.

Eventually, the county forced the union to stop.

There have been echoes of similar disputes in Long Beach's fire department, one of only two combination agencies here.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

In 2001, the firefighters' union complained in the local weekly newspaper about what it called "a deceptive fundraising letter" from the volunteers that claimed credit for answering calls that the union said paid firefighters had handled. The union also asked other unions representing Long Beach government workers and New York City firefighters to discourage their members from volunteering. That went nowhere.

Jay Gusler, a former union president, was fired on unrelated misconduct charges but won reinstatement and has sued, claiming the city retaliated for his union activities.

Volunteers lose standing

Even dedicated volunteers find the friction demoralizing.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"The really shocking thing, to be perfectly blunt, is the way everybody treats you," said Bruce Newell, an architect and 25-year volunteer in Orange County, Calif.'s Modjeska Canyon. "They think we're incompetent."

As Orange County's fruit groves and ranches have morphed into pharmaceutical plants and subdivisions, its volunteer departments have been folded into a single combination fire authority. And the "reserves," as volunteers are known, rapidly lost standing amid union complaints that they were unreliable.

At first equal to the union crews, volunteers soon were issued different-colored helmet insignia. Their officers lost titles and rank after the union argued they didn't have the same training or standards.

"I don't care -- I'll wear a duck suit if they want. I'm here to do a job," said Craig Sample, a volunteer who ran the county's busy Midway City firehouse in 2001.

But by that point, volunteers were failing to respond to 47 percent of their alarms, the county said, forcing it to provide a paid backup crew on every call. Up to one-third of the volunteers left every year, forcing constant retraining.

"If we did a cost-benefit analysis, we'd be bankrupt," paid Battalion Chief Scott Brown said.

In 2003, after lobbying from the union and a "customer-centered strategic plan," Orange County decided most volunteers would no longer ride fire engines. They are now limited to a backup role in emergency medical service.

The volunteers still get to fight fires in a few influential communities and in remote areas like Modjeska Canyon, where 100 or so annual calls for help don't justify a paid crew. "I don't really understand the union's position," Newell said. "If they didn't have all this force doing the work for the love of it, they wouldn't have all the money to pay their people like they do ...

"I think they had a marvelous resource that they got rid of."