AVOIDING AN APPARATUS-RELATED LAWSUIT
FIRE SERVICE COURT
In case you haven’t been reading the fire service publications or the section newsletters during the past years, you should be aware that your most likely source of injury or death in connection with your fire department duties involves a traffic accident while responding to or returning from an incident. In connection with this statistical fact is another fact that perhaps is not as well known and widely discussed: Your greatest chance of being named in a lawsuit in connection with your fire department duties arises out of your operation of a department vehicle or, in the case of volunteers, your own car used to respond from home to an emergency scene. This statistic applies whether or not the vehicle is operated under emergency conditions. If you are involved in a traffic accident while picking up a part for the department mechanic or a pizza for the on-duty crew and you are in a department vehicle, the department and you will be named defendants.
Since it is a fact that your greatest chance of being involved in the legal system arises out of vehicle operation (and supervision), it seems to me that departments and chief officers would do well to formulate policies in advance to minimize their exposure to possible lawsuits. You should bear in mind, however, that anyone can be a defendant in a lawsuit. All anyone needs to file a lawsuit is a ballpoint pen and $125 for the entry fee. It would be nice if I could guarantee that you will never be named in a lawsuit, but that is impossible. The real trick is to avoid being found liable, the legal term for being at fault.
PROTECTING AGAINST LAWSUITS
How then can prudent departments begin to avoid being found responsible for trafficand vehicle-related lawsuits?
• The first way is one I have continually been preaching to anyone who will listen: Institute a bona fide training program for apparatus drivers. Department members should not be allowed to operate emergency vehicles based simply on their ability to arrive at the station before anyone else. Likewise, assignment as an operator ought not to be made on the basis of seniority or advanced age. Members who take and successfully complete an apparatus driver’s safety course should be certified for such duty and should have to recertify on a regular basis, every three years not being unreasonable.
The operator’s safety course should include classroom work with an instructor well versed in apparatus safety and a review of applicable traffic laws, defensive driving techniques, and the department’s SOP regarding emergency response. (By the way, if your department doesn’t have a written and posted SOP on emergency response, you had better get one.) The course should also involve the department mechanic, who should use the manufacturer’s operator’s manual to go over the mechanical and safety systems of the individual piece of apparatus involved. This part of the course should not be confined to the classroom but should proceed to the apparatus floor and, if appropriate, to the training facility for a “hands-on” session.
The course should involve actual driving, braking, backing, and operating of the piece. The driving portion can be over the road and also can involve training ground operation, but it should not consist of simply driving around town. A written examination as well as a practical evaluation of driving and operating skills should also be included, and the successful candidates should receive certificates of successful completion for their personnel file. The written exam and the practical driving test need not be on a par with that for qualifying as a NASA astronaut but should be a genuine and defensible course that teaches and evaluates real operator’s skills and knowledge.
- 1 constantly have reminded my students and audiences that speed of response is not necessarily the mark of a great fire department. You are no good to anyone, including yourself, if you are involved in a traffic accident on the way to an emergency. At the very least, you have taken yourself and the piece out of service. At the worst, you have hurt or killed someone, perhaps yourself.
- Perhaps this should be first from a personal protection point of view: Wear your seat belt. Be fully dressed and equipped before the piece begins to move. If you are riding, have your gear laid out and ready to go. Make sure all of your personal tools and appliances are where they should be and in working order. If you are the officer, make sure all of your members are dressed, seated, and belted before you allow the vehicle to move. This is true even when returning from alarms. As the supervisor of the piece, you may be held responsible for any injuries that occur to your crew or to the people in the other vehicle. Safe operation is your supervisory responsibility. I cannot stress enough the requirement of wearing properly installed seat belts. If you are flying around inside the cab or are ejected, you are dead. Likewise, while I am thinking of it. all tools and equipment must be absolutely secured so that they do not break loose and act as flying missiles in the event of a crash.
- If there is any doubt in your mind about the serviceability or safety of a piece of apparatus or a tool carried thereon, put it out of service and report it immediately up the departmental chain of command. I don’t mean to imply that you should ground the district’s only ladder truck because of a bad bulb in the rear directional signal or because of a tear in the front seat upholstery. I do mean, however, that problems relating to brake air pressure, steering control, bad tires, or other problems that directly impact on vehicle safety should be addressed immediately. Don’t be afraid to ground the piece under justifiable circumstances.
- Take into consideration the limitations imposed by your environment. Extreme conditions of weather including ice, snow.
- rain, wind, and darkness should dictate extreme caution. Under some circumstances, for example, winter conditions experienced in the Northeast this past winter, departments should be content simply to show up. If you have extreme conditions, operate under the absolutely safest conditions possible. Do not attempt to arrive in the same fashion that could be expected in perfect weather. Be content simply to arrive safely and in one piece.
- You all know the conditions about which I am speaking, and you all have had the experience of having the apparatus driver respond as if it were a dry. sunny Sunday in May.
Remember, no one is immune from being named in a lawsuit. You, however, can take prudent and advance steps to ensure that your conduct, when called in question, will be found to be reasonable and proper.