Legal Responsibility Vs. Liability
Fire chiefs in Hudson County, New Jersey, were surprised recently to learn of some novel concepts of legal thinking prevalent in that area. Shortly after a new county prosecutor took office, he called all chiefs of the area together and raised quite a few eyebrows by his expressed ideas regarding the duties and responsibilities of a fire chief. All fire service officials would do well to ponder and explore them in a critical manner.
According to reports, Hudson County fire chiefs can now expect to be called before the grand jury to account for manpower deficiencies in the event of fatal fires in that area. In addition, the prosecutor expects fire chiefs to do something about motorists who doublepark in their communities. This latter facet apparently is concerned with problems of apparatus response which are common to many cities.
Naturally, chiefs present at this meeting raised the perennial question concerning requests for increased manpower and, more often than not, denied due to economic necessity as determined by the governing body. While the answers were vague, the prosecutor did admit that it is possible that a grand jury might commend a chief for his efforts in the event this was found to be true. No answer was forthcoming as to what was to be done with cars found double-parked. The fire chiefs simply questioned where parking space to put all the autos was to be found in the various Hudson County communities rather than to inquire directly into the legal precedent for the move.
Practically all states have statutes which place responsibility for fire protection squarely on fire chiefs. At the same time, they also have provisions which permit governing bodies to determine exactly what manpower a chief shall have at his command to carry out this duty. In the event of a disaster where lack of fire fighting manpower is questioned, it is logical to expect that community governing bodies, rather than the fire chief, be accountable to a grand jury.
Probably many persons will dismiss the Hudson County occurrence as a press-agentry stunt to gain publicity. Unfortunately, while this may be true, the effect of the prosecutor’s pronouncements may stimulate others to irresponsible action before the courts. One phenomenon of our way of life is the frequency with which those suffering a fire calamity immediately attempt to place the blame for their tragedy on the local fire department. While it may be a trait of human nature to look for a scapegoat following an embarrassing occurrence, the number of times that otherwise responsible persons make unjustified claims regarding fire department efficiency appears to be well beyond that normal to other endeavors.
It is possible that events such as that in Hudson County can lead to time-consuming legal hearings and court defense. This is a matter of concern not only to fire chiefs but to governing bodies who are generally required to provide the necessary legal assistance to them. Before the incident is lightly dismissed, it may be well for all concerned to give serious thought to the laws presently governing the fire service and the limits to which legal liability extends. This is an area which fire and municipal organizations might well explore on a joint basis.
This country has been, and is, in the throes of a great social revolution and values and ideas applied to the fire service by many persons have been changing. Legal concepts as they relate to the fire service are coming under closer scrutiny in many areas. The recently concluded 35th Annual Fire Department Instructors Conference in Memphis, Tenn., included a program item devoted to fire department liability in situations where negligence may be alleged. The attorney presenting the talk reviewed a recent Alaska case in which a city was held negligent and forced to pay a judgment as a result of certain actions on the part of its fire department during a fire fighting operation. He recommended that fire department guidelines be developed for avoiding liability and that adequate records of fires be kept as a hedge against a growing liability trend.
The responsibility readily accepted by the fire service in its everyday activities is a heavy burden and has been discharged faithfully on the record for many, many years. In these changing times, however, it is not difficult for those seeking personal gain or satisfaction to overlook the record or attempt to brush it aside by novel legal maneuvering. When such an occasion does occur, it places everyone concerned in a difficult defensive position from which recovery is frequently impossible. The time to take preventive action is before disaster occurs. Legal harassment may be just around the comer for many unsuspecting fire chiefs unless positive steps are taken now to protect them in the discharge of their duties.