‘Fill the Boot’ fundraising to continue as Fairfax County discourages panhandling

fairfax firefighters fill the boot
Fairfax County firefighters collected the most money nationally in this year’s Fill The Boot campaign for the Muscular Dystrophy Association. (Courtesy Facebook/Fairfax Co. Professional Firefighters & Paramedics)

One day after Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors announced plans to put signs at busy intersections to discourage drivers from giving money to panhandlers, County Fire Chief John Butler said the longstanding “Fill the Boot” charity campaign in roadways will continue.

In a Tuesday meeting, the Virginia board stopped short of drafting an ordinance to make panhandling at intersections unlawful, and decided to erect signs targeting drivers that read: “Do not encourage panhandling by giving money from vehicle.”

The county’s suggestion that drivers not hand over money through a car window seems to be at odds with the annual Labor Day fundraising for the Muscular Dystrophy Association by the firefighters’ union, in which drivers are encouraged to roll down their windows to drop money in a firefighter’s boot.

Asked by WTOP whether the board of supervisors’ safety concerns about distractions at intersections would prompt the fire department to find other methods to collect donations than having firefighters standing in intersections, Fairfax County Fire Chief John Butler’s statement ignored the question.

“Members of the Fairfax County Fire and Rescue Department have raised over $2.8 million in the last five years for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the Fill The Boot campaign will continue,” Butler said, in a statement. “We would like to thank our community for their extraordinary generosity.”

“The Fill the Boot campaign is the highest-grossing Muscular Dystrophy effort in the country,” Supervisor John Cook told WTOP. “We’re very proud of our firefighters for giving of their time, and of themselves to do that.”

Fairfax County firefighters and paramedics raised the most money in the country during this year’s  MDA campaign — $447,571 — according to International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2068.

However, Cook and Supervisor Pat Herrity said they believe controlling panhandling at intersections may require an ordinance, with legal teeth, rather than just signs to discourage drivers.

“If we are going to pursue an ordinance about panhandling [on roadways and intersections] that would have to apply to firefighters as well,” Cook said. “That’s the law.”

“That is activity occurring in the road medians,” Cook said. “The firefighters have some training there and they are able to watch out for themselves, but that’s a one-weekend-a-year thing.”

According to Cook, “If we’re finding that 365 days a year, there’s a safety problem in our intersections, I think we have a responsibility to address that problem.”

The MDA Fill the Boot Guidebook details safety steps fire personnel should take, including wearing orange or yellow reflective vests, posting signs well ahead of the intersections where collections will take place, and parking fire trucks with emergency lights on.

Two guidelines apply to getting donations from drivers: “Initiate all collections from roadside or median,” and “Never stop traffic, and only approach stopped vehicles.”

Cook said he’s confident the firefighters would continue to raise large of amounts of money, and do it more safely.

“I would hope that it could be focused on shopping centers, outside of grocery stores, places where a lot of people congregate,” Cook said.

“I would certainly want to support that effort and have us remain the top supporter of the MDA program. And, I think it can be done in a way other than the current method, in the roadway.”

Phone calls and Facebook messages to the firefighters’ union requesting comment were not immediately returned.

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