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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

When does public interest trump private-ownership rights?

It is important to know the state's rules on when property can be commandeered and to remember that those rules can be challenged in court

By Adam K. Thiel

Editor's note: Chief Adam K. Thiel looks at an interesting story about who pays the damages when private property is commandeered for firefighting. 

This article definitely made me think.

As an incident commander I've commandeered private property before, but I've always asked, and fortunately been granted, advance permission to use it.

I'm not sure what would have happened if we needed to use a structure, vehicle or other piece of equipment to address an emergency situation if there was nobody around to ask.

I do know that every state in which I've worked has different laws on the books regarding fire officers' and fire departments' legal authorities during emergency (often specified as fire) incidents. Most of these are written very generally and don't provide details on the many different types of situations we get involved in.

Years ago I made a habit of printing, laminating and carrying the relevant code sections in my gear — just in case. Still, remember that whatever the law says, explicitly or implicitly, it can always be challenged in court.

The bigger question, as illustrated in this story, seems to be whether the broader public interest (at a fire or emergency incident) trumps private property rights?

In some cases, such as entering an exposure building to prevent fire spread, the answer appears obvious. In other instances, like this one, it's not as clear.

What do you think?

Stay safe!

About the author

With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel FireRescue1's editorial advisor is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel's operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.

The comments below are member-generated and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its staff. If you cannot see comments, try disabling privacy and ad blocking plugins in your browser. All comments must comply with our Member Commenting Policy.
Daniel Simeon Daniel Simeon Monday, November 19, 2012 5:28:24 PM This is why you dont have volunteers running a firedepartment. Volunteers are great to augment a large area but they should not be the sole individuals in charge. Anyone who thinks they can simply commandeer private equipment to fight a fire has no business being in the business.
Jesse Walter Jesse Walter Monday, November 19, 2012 7:13:09 PM I was always told that if we used it, we would be responsible for restoring it to the condition it was prior to use. If you use it, be prepared to repair it. Where I worked we restored property damaged, for example wheel tracks in the lawn, broken sidewalks, and other damage peripheral to the actual emergency. Really rare occasions, though. In an early instance, I remember when a couple of F/F's rolled a parked car back from a burning dumpster. Car was unlocked with key in ignition. Auto owner was not pleased. I sort of recall being told, "next time let it burn."
Scott Ortiz Scott Ortiz Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:31:06 AM I love how you just Trashed 80% of the countries Fire Departments. Attitudes like yours is what is wrong with this country.
Scott Ortiz Scott Ortiz Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:45:28 AM Thanks for the article. It is always a good reminder to all of those who server their communities. Both Paid and Unpaid professionals.
Scott Ortiz Scott Ortiz Tuesday, November 20, 2012 8:46:36 AM That is the way it should be at all departments. We live by the same as your department.
Gary Clark Gary Clark Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:18:55 PM Thanks Scott, volunteers across the nation salute you!

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