Should firefighters stand in the street and ask for money? (Criticizing the Fill the Boot Campaign)

First, before you start hating me, let me say that I’m amazed by the risk firefighters face and the courage with which they face it. Even Grizzly bears and great whites are afraid of fire. That makes firefighters, who jump into a blazing building, braver than grizzlies and great whites!

(Photo: I took this photo of a firefighter in the street “filling the boot” in my hometown.)

A woman who has an office in the same building I have an office would not be with us any longer if not for the action and courage of local firefighters. Firefighters miraculously rescued her and her husband from a horrible home fire in the middle of the night. They risked their lives to save hers.

The world is a safer place because of these brave individuals, BUT . . .

Every time I see a firefighter standing in the middle of a busy intersection holding a boot and asking for money, I want to go off on a big rant.

This is that rant, sort of.

Do you Fill the Boot? Should you?

Firefighters are ambassadors of all things safety. There is nothing safe about standing in the middle of the street like trolls wielding clubs of guilt to shakedown motorists of their loose change. I don’t give because I don’t want to support the practice.

I’m not alone.

A petition signed by 900 citizens of Loudon County Virginia asking for a ban of panhandlers, including firefighters, was presented to the local Board of Supervisors. The petition led to a ban. The ban was criticized by the regional director of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Maybe I was always too busy ignoring the firefighters on the street or pretending to look for loose change and finding none, but I didn’t realize that “Fill the Boot” campaigns raised funds for MDA. The regional director of the Loudon county area said that the campaign had led to more than $800,000 of donations in the past decade, and that standing in the street asking for change was four times more effective than standing at a storefront.

The Washington Post even covered the ban and pointed out that in Fairfax County the campaign raised $568,000 over Labor Day Weekend in 2012. The article included this paragraph which really makes me feel like a jackass:

Joel Kobersteen of International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2068, who helps organize the Fairfax program every year . . . said he has met families who would not have gotten medical items such as braces and wheelchairs without the MDA’s help, as well as benefit from “the research that Fairfax County ‘Fill the Boot’ helps fund in order to extend their lives and find cures to their particular neuromuscular diseases.” Last year, Fairfax County’s firefighters collected more than $568,000 over Labor Day weekend, the most in the country for the third time in the last six years.

Risky, bad giving practice, but raises a ton of money

Also, as a giver, I’m not a fan of this practice. It’s not a very intentional way to give. It’s just a step above from being asked at the cash register if you’d like to round up your charge to give to “Charlie.” What’s Charlie?! (That actually happened to me yesterday at a movie theater.)

(I have some giving tips here)

A concerned firefighter who was relieved his station didn’t participate in Fill the Boot wrote into’s advice columnist Nozzlehead to ask if the practice was safe. It’s worth a read for a balanced view and history of the campaign, which has raised $500 million for MDA. Nozzlehead saves his biggest criticism for firefighters that have to turn to raising funds for themselves. Here’ the gist of it:

To answer your question directly, the risk is there and if firefighters can come up with better ways to collect these important funds, they should. Volunteer firefighters having to raise funds to operate should be commended, but it’s 2015, and with personal time so tight, it’s time for the local community to ante up and pay for your equipment. You don’t see public works crews doing boot drives to buy new snow plows or cops doing boot drives to buy new cars. Next time you see the city manager or related city hall dwellers doing fundraising to buy their desks or build a new office, take a picture and send it to me. The days of expecting volunteer firefighters to volunteer AND raise money to volunteer is over; many volunteer fire departments can barely get enough people to join, train, and respond.

Specific to those on the roadways, find a better way to raise the funds such as shopping centers, malls, and places where you are less likely to be struck. If you can’t, use extreme caution following the same standards you would anytime you are operating on the roadways.

So, do you Fill the Boot when they come to your car window?

Eric Gregory says:

It’s interesting to me that you chose to single out firefighters for this complaint. Although I’ve seen it in other areas, in mine we firefighters don’t use this tactic to raise funds for anything but many other organizations do.

I strongly agree with your safety concern, but I believe with common sense and alertness this can be mitigated. As for the guilt issue, that’s just fundraising. Whether it’s a firefighter at your window, a little leaguer standing outside the grocery store or a letter with a picture of a starving ethiopian child in the mail a large portion of fundraising is all about making the person feel guilty if they don’t give.

I’m not saying the guilt angle is the best or even right, just that it is what most fundraising is about.

These firefighters take their time to stand on those corners and raise 800,000 dollars for a local charity. I’m sure if you have an idea that replaces that 800,00 dollars without requiring the firefighters to stand on the corners that they’d love to hear them. In the mean time they’re giving up their time to help their community in yet another way. If you choose not to give in this manner that’s one thing, but perhaps instead of just knocking them for the way in which they are choosing to contribute you could offer an alternative.

Kelsey says:

Eric, Thanks for your thoughts. I think Nozzlehead’s response is the one I feel to be the most appropriate. I’m not going to pretend that my knee jerk reaction of, “Stop collecting money in the streets” is a well thought out response. This post is my attempt to actually have an informed thought on the matter. I’m sticking with Nozzlehead: Firefighters are awesome! They are even more awesome when they raise money for kids! It would be best if they didn’t stand in the middle of the street, but, if they do, they are still awesome!”

Thanks for being a hero.

JBrown says:

Interesting timing regarding this post and the news that a firefighter was killed yesterday (Sept. 9th) in an apparent road rage incident while raising funds. The victim was standing in the center turn-lane of a busy intersection where he was intentionally struck by the accused. I now find myself questioning this practice of fundraising by firefighters which led me to this author’s post regarding the subject.
I must say that I agree with the author. Firefighters are incredible civic servants and their willingness to risk their lives in emergencies is worthy of all adulation. While I too have seen little league players raising money at intersections, I have never seen them step into travel lanes to attain such funds- a practice firefighter appear to exercise on a regular basis. However, purposely placing oneself into travel lanes at intersections (or at any point of a road beyond the act of crossing a street at a crosswalk) appears to incur a high risk to both the firefighter and to passing drivers. I personally have witnessed such activities result in traffic congestion and delays. Historically I have quickly dismissed the resulting inconvenience upon noting the cause, but now….
Effects of traffic congestion include an increase in vehicle accident rates and incidents of road rage among drivers. While the Muscular Dystrophy Association has been quick to note that to their knowledge this is the first incident where a firefighter has been killed while raising funds in this manner, I have seen nothing regarding injuries or rates around such events. There may be no effect, but the public should be made aware if additional hazards are incurred by “Fill the Boot”. In this case, the only fault of the firefighter was his verbal participation in escalating a bad situation with a motorist, but his risk would have been greatly diminished had he not been standing in the middle of the road in free flow traffic.
I am sorry that standing in front of a shop or grocery store is not as effective, but it appears that the alternative is not a viable option. There is a reason that it is generally illegal to simply stand in the middle of a road and/or intersection and it has everything to do with safety for everyone. If it were a safe practice, the Girl Scouts would be pushing cookies at busy crossroads throughout the nation. One way to compensate for the lower efficiency of storefront locations would be to extend the period of fundraising. Easy to type, but more difficult to practice.

Jay says:

In one firehouse I saw collecting, they used the right lane after the intersection on all four sides about 150 ft away from the intersection. Large signs told drivers about fill the boot. With the direction to donate to the right. Firemen were on all 4 corners directing those who wished to donate to the right lane collection point.
I saw a lot of activity. Looked safe and voluntary.

Bruce says:

I have been a professional firefighter for a major metropolitan department in Colorado for 25 years and I completely agree with everything you wrote. But I would extend it even further and say it is not only an unsafe practice (from our personal safety standpoint) but it’s also an illegal abuse of public tax dollars, at least for taxpayer funded departments! In this day and age when every city is strapped to the gills for money, it astounds me that we continue to do this “traditional” practice of pandering for money (illegal in most cities) for a PRIVATE cause that has nothing whatsoever to do with public safety.

The firefighter unions are well aware of this but pressure fire administrations across the country into continuing to allow ‘their’ personnel (it’s not ‘their’s, by the way, it’s the taxpayers) to stand on street corners, or hover like vultures around the entrances to superstores like Walmart, Sam’s Club, Costco, etc. All at taxpayer expense!

Of course, you won’t see city police, utilities or other city departments out pandering for money, just the fire department! We’re ‘the good guys’ and ‘people love us,’ so they are ready and willing to open their wallets to ‘fill the boot’ at our calling. It makes me cringe. Not because I don’t want to help ‘Jerry’s kids’ (of course I do) but I see people who obviously aren’t that well off who give to US, because it’s US, the fire department. “Thank you for all you do,” they’ll say, “we love you guys.”

If you DARE question the practice you are likely to receive a severe rebuke. “What, you don’t want to help Jerry’s Kids?” “You’re not a TEAM player?” Of course if you point out the litany of logical fallacies this line of reasoning commits (“why just THIS cause?” Why not all the other OTHER ‘good causes’ out there?) WILL result in angry tirades by individuals who see this fundraiser as part of the oath they swore to ‘protect and serve’ when they were hired.

Gregory S. says:

It is obvious that you do not have a close relative or friend who suffers from this debilitating disease. A disease that robs people of a healthy life from early on. Shame on you for your selfishness against a cause which helps these children to, among others things: go to local camps to enjoy summer with other youths. Because of this charitable event, my brother was able to enjoy summer camp for many years, as well as other social events throughout the year. THANKS TO THE MDA® BOOT DRIVE

Eric Johnson says:

I am one of Jerry’s kids, and I have had a severe MDA covered disease since birth. My first and subsequent diagnoses were made by MDA and my first set of leg braes were paid for by MDA.

That having been said, this practice is now occurring 1/2 mile from me, with supposedly off duty Metro firemen wearing fire uniforms, traipsing over 22, yes 22 lanes of traffic (3x NSEW + 2×2+2×1 left & 4 right turn lanes,) with the sign on one thoroughfare some 2 miles back and barely readable.

Then where there are bunches of firemen in a busy intersection, is it better that I think, zebra, meaning boot drive, or horse, meaning accident or fire working?

Use of firefighters official office, whether paid or not, is improper and confusing.

And I am 50 and a Jerry’s kid, and I’ve never seen nor heard of such a “boot drive,” where firefighters scamper among cars like the beggars at the end of LA freeway exits.

And they should to have to beg to be properly outfitted, either.

The whole things is confusing for drivers, dangerous for firefighters, and discriminatory, as my group cannot walk into traffic to solicit funds. Why should off-duty firefighters dressed as on-duty firefighters be able to lend their office to promote such practices?

MonaLisa says:

Yes they should ne able to ,people who use the money for drugs stand out there.Theres is going to a good cause.If you don’t want to give then don’t.Why critize.

John says:

All the fireman drive $40,000 trucks and I cant even afford a used vehicle. Seems like the are doing pretty well, I don’t understand why they have to collect for money. Oh and most of them have really big bellies, So we know they aren’t starving. The local fire companies here in New Jersey all seem to either get a new roof, siding or digital sign every year. I think they spend too much on things not needed. It is a slap in the face to me when they hold up traffic as they beg for money. I am going to work and I have to see this. Very insulting.

Connie Pei says:

I know Vancouver BC Fireman do stand on the street and beg for money. But I don’t give either because they should be fighting fire and not begging. Which I never get why they do this negative publicity act.

But again if they are not begging then they come up of excuses to fine people.

Michael Lee says:

Maybe you would prefer the kids with muscular dystrophy themselves ask for the donations…

Becky taylor says:

Works for me.

Kathy M says:

Though you originally wrote this commentary in 2015; I’m grateful to have found that I am not the only one feeling cranky about this practice. It’s May 2018; Memorial Day w/e when our roadways already take in more traffic than normally; as our road is ‘the gateway to the Hamptons’, and each year our local firemen stand on the main road and hold up traffic. Not just at the RED lights (I’m ok with this) but at the GREEN lights too!
I’m all for fundraising; I’m sure it’ll go to a great cause (though as a side note a close friend whose father in law was a volunteer firemen stated many donations go to sponsoring trips for them and spouses- I hope she’s wrong).
All that being said, it’s got to be a traffic safety issue. Stand on the corner and wave them into the firehouse driveway PLEASE.
anyway Thanks Kelsey for validating my frustrations and to all those who criticize with guilt; we’re all entitled to our feelings; we’re not against fundraising just not in the middle of the street! (I actually called a local tv station to see if they knew the rules or to give traffic warnings and the reporter tried to guilt me w/ ‘you do know that our volunteering is at an all time low’; Totally missed my point of holding up traffic. Nice reporter huh?)

Kelsey says:

Arguing this point kind of makes you feel like the Grinch, huh? Me too. Every time I see it I rant to my wife. It was good to get this out into the world and I’m glad you found it.

Ray Hudson says:

All I want to say is it angers me to be stuck in traffic on Mineral Spring Ave in RI on my Labor Day weekend because in front of the fire station they are stopping traffic with their boot. I don’t care at this point what they are collecting for, they are slowing traffic to a crawl. This is neither safe nor fair to the general public.

salyavin says:

I saw this for the first time today after a move a couple months back. I had a rare day off on Labor day and took my family out and found firemen standing in the middle of a busy intersection begging for money. If you are that short ask us voters for a tax increase. I know find out they are using tax funded people and uniforms to stand out in the middle of the street endangering my family and themselves to solicit for a private charity. Worthy charity or no it is I believe illegal to use public staff in this manner plus endangering all of us by standing in the middle of the roadway is asking for law suits and less respect when public workers respond to road side emergencies. This needs to stop immediately.

Cumacho says:

I assume firefighters stand in streets to attempt to shame me, a tax paying citizen, to give them money. If they need the money, I agree they should act like homeless bums stopping traffic begging for my change and sacrificing some dignity. My issue is why do they need fundraising? Why are fire departments not adequately funded by local governments? I don’t see Teacher’s standing in the streets to pay for textbooks. I don’t see Police Officers standing in the streets to pay for vests or ammunition. I don’t see Garbage Men/Women standing in the streets to pay for better garbage trucks. These are all locally funded – why aren’t fire departments locally funded? This may be my lack of knowledge (hence why I came to this site to research), but are they locally funded, but fire departments need more money to fund their parties, poker and beer?

Cumacho says:

One more item to add – my local fire department has a beautiful building, with 4-5 awesome trucks. They spend their days cleaning those trucks (or atelast every time I drive by they are displaying the trucks in front of the building and cleaning them). They also have a separate building on the property that is used for parties and catering. it’s an enclosed structure with a commercial kitchen in it. It would seem to me that they have adequate funds (not sure where it comes from though) to have great fire department, awesome trucks that are always spotless, and a party building. What do they need extra for? (this is where I turn to beer and poker tables)

Lana Smiley says:

Hell no! This is bullshit. From the get-go 3% goes to “admin. costs”. And insurance pays for the same thing they are collecting for. Add to that they are an obnoxious traffic hazard.

Let your voice be heard!