Commentary, Leadership

Commentary: Firefighters and the Rule of Law

John K. Murphy

The Rule of Law as defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as: “The authority and influence of law in society, especially when viewed as a constraint on individual and institutional behavior; (hence) the principle whereby all members of a society (including those in government) are considered equally subject to publicly disclosed legal codes and processes.”

What does that mean for the fire service? My simple legal advice here is; there are rules, laws and policies affecting our fire service – don’t break them and you won’t get sued, fired, demoted or arrested. Simple right? Not as simple when we see numerous violations of those laws and policies applying to members of the service.

Our primary laws are found in the US Constitution giving rise to applicable state laws protecting our employees preventing discrimination, protecting employees from harassment, ageism, gender and race discrimination and many others.

Other local laws related to marriage and driving licenses, building permits, licensees for health care practitioners including paramedics and EMT’s, and purchase and sale of firearms are all are designed to provide some sense of order and safety guiding and protecting our citizenry in a safe manner indirectly providing a universal code of conduct and ethical standards.

Laws that guide our fire operations and training are based on national guidelines and standards as some states have adopted many of the NFPA guidelines in their state statutes. For example, many State and local governments have placed the NFPA 1001 or NFPA 1500, for example in their laws, codes and regulations based on the standards found in the sections guiding fire department safety, response and training to name a few. Regulation as well as individual fire departments have establish minimum requirements for fire suppression personnel following a national standard only makes sense from the safety, financial and legal standpoints.

When a State incorporates those standards into their Codes, the compliance with the standards is mandatory. For example, in the State of Washington, the legislature has promulgated regulations that guide safety standards for fire suppression and, in general, all activities of the fire department. They are found in the Washington Administrative Code (WAC) Chapter 296-305 -Safety standards for fire fighters and in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW) 43.43.934 which covers the State fire protection policy board, their Duties and provides direction for Fire training and an education master plan.

Washington State has adopted many of the NFPA standards that guide most if not all of the activities of firefighters to include protective clothing ensembles, health and fitness, vehicles found under WAC 296-305 – Safety Standards for Firefighters. In order to further protect the firefighter and its citizens, the State of Washington adopted WAC 52-54A, State Building Code Adoption and Amendment of the 2015 Edition of the International Fire Code.

Your department’s Policies no matter how well or badly written or out of date, are your department’s laws. Laws of your department and the expectation by your leadership is compliance to those Polices for both career and volunteer abiding by those provisions creating a safe workplace in and out of the fire station. Policies, like other written material generated by your department, affect all aspects of your operation from response, to fire ground operations, to fitness and protective clothing. Policies like zero tolerance for drugs and alcohol, driving and wearing of seatbelts, training, use of internet services, weapons in the fire station and hundreds of other rules and regulations. These are your laws and can be used to protect you or used against you if violated.

In some arenas, the question of the rule of law has become polarizing and divisive. My hope is that we in the fire service can rise above the chaos, obey our rules of law and incorporate the safe and sane practices that ensure we safely return home after every shift.

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.