Fire Service Court: Prevention Liability

In this column, members of the FDIC legal expert panel will respond to reader-submitted written questions related to legal issues. We will try to answer as many questions as possible, and in some instances, we will refer readers directly to attorneys in their home states. To submit a legal question, CLICK HERE. Every reader is reminded that the answers the attorneys in this column provide are generic in nature, and do not constitute specific legal advice, since each state may have different legal standards that apply. Always consult a licensed attorney in your home state.

What is the liability of on-duty firefighters who are required to install smoke/heat/carbon monoxide (CO) detectors?

Curt Varone: This question has a short answer and a long answer, and raises a few issues that go well beyond the question asked, including what is the proper role of a fire department and how one leads in the modern world.

The short answer to the question is that whenever firefighters engage in any activity, they may be liable for the failure to exercise the care that the reasonably prudent firefighter would have exercised under the circumstances. The fact that one is doing a good deed is not a consideration. In other words, a firefighter who negligently installs a smoke, heat, or carbon monoxide (CO) detector could be liable for any damages that occur to those who may potentially be injured.

Some states provide immunity from liability for certain types of fire department activities. Although some states limit this liability to fireground activities, other states provide broad enough immunity coverage to provide liability protection for those who install such life safety devices.

However, this question implies another, perhaps more important, question: Should firefighters be involved in life-safety initiatives such as installing smoke, heat, and CO detectors? This question underscores a very common obstacle to leadership in the modern world, the fear of being sued.

In addressing these questions, it is hard for personal opinion not to creep in, so I'll be honest and give you mine: Yes, there are liability risks associated with installing such smoke detectors, but it is our job as firefighters to take proactive measures such as installing these life-saving devices in occupancies where, for whatever reason, the occupants cannot find a way to do so themselves. Fear of lawsuits should not be used as an excuse to avoid doing such work.

Leaders in all walks of life are often confronted with excuses not to engage in new activities, and no doubt every fire service leader who has embarked upon such a new venture has heard the howls from those who resist the changes. Many times, concerns about increased liability provide such proponents of the status quo with a cloak of righteousness.

The true legal challenge is not so much whether to engage in such an initiative, but how to do it in a way that will minimize liability. Establishing proper procedures, providing proper training to personnel, and ensuing good documentation are important risk-management techniques will help minimize any liability exposure.

Curt Varone has served in the fire service for more than 35 years, with experience as a volunteer, paid on-call, and career firefighter. He has more than 22 years of experience as a practicing attorney representing firefighters and fire departments. Varone recently retired as a deputy assistant chief (shift commander) with the Providence (RI) Fire Department, and is now the director of the Public Fire Protection Division at the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). He is also an adjunct faculty member with the National Fire Academy in its Executive Fire Officer Program, and teaches in the fire science program at Providence College. Varone is the author of Fire Officer's Legal Handbook and Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, both from Cengage-Delmar Publishing.

Subjects: Fire service legal issues, firefighters and the law, fire prevention liability, carbon monoxide detectors, smoke detector installation

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