Firefighters said they saw a man masquerading as one of them to collect cash from motorists along Meridian Street Sunday, June 19.
The reported sightings came just days after the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 106’s Fill the Boot campaign on Thursday and Friday, June 16 and 17. During the annual, nationwide fundraiser, firefighters volunteered their own time on busy street corners, empty boots in-hand, to ask stopped motorists for cash. Proceeds go to local chapters of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Bellingham Assistant Fire Chief Bill Hewett said he saw the man on a drive home around 3 p.m. Sunday near the intersection of Meridian Street and Telegraph Road. The man, Hewett said, was carrying a boot and wearing a navy blue T-shirt. The word “fire” seemed to be hand-painted on the front of the shirt, Hewett said, and “BFD” on the back.
Hewett, who is not affiliated with the union, said he saw the man collect money from at least one passing motorist.
The suspected scam could be considered theft or fraud, said Bellingham Police Lt. Mike Johnston.
“It would be disheartening to see somebody taking advantage of a charitable program like the Fill the Boot campaign as an opportunity to fill their own wallet,” Hewett said. “I would hate for somebody down the road to feel they don’t want to support a legitimate charity, whatever it may be, because they got a bad taste in their mouth because somebody like this was taking advantage of it.”
Hewett wasn’t the only firefighter to report the sighting Sunday.
Dave Pethick, vice president of the Local 106, said a battalion chief drove to the intersection around 5 p.m. to speak with the man after another firefighter called in about it. As the battalion chief approached, the man ran away.
The battalion chief spoke briefly to another panhandler across the street, who said the man “was doing pretty well,” or something similar, Pethick said.
Pethick said he notified followers on social media about the sighting as soon as he heard about it.
Since the local Fill the Boot drive wrapped up on Friday, motorists shouldn’t see local firefighters asking for cash until next year. Still, Hewett said the fundraiser always involves a group of firefighters — not just one — working an intersection. The union also places signs at the intersection to explain the cause.
“We are given a lot of trust by the public and we take that very seriously,” Pethick said. “We don’t want it to be tarnished, and we don’t want it to get ruined by the actions of anybody.”