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Fire News in Focus
by Adam K. Thiel

Lawsuits vs. firefighting: Know how to make the right call

A recent lawsuit claims a fire department did not 'act with a sense of urgency' when it responded to a plant fire and told other departments not to assist suppression

This scenario — a fire department being sued for not putting out a fire — is something we've seen in the U.S. fire service, but it's not especially common.

I can't help but wonder, as more and more fire departments are forced to cut their budgets, and by extension their capabilities, if we're going to see more frequent stories like this one in the future?

The degree to which fire departments can be subject to civil lawsuits varies with the type of department and state/local laws, regulations, and ordinances.

Most fire departments, and fire department members, no longer enjoy complete "sovereign immunity."

While I expect we'll get more information about this fire in the coming days and weeks, without knowing the details it appears to illustrate another challenging question facing incident commanders when choosing a strategy: "will I get sued for going defensive if the building burns to the ground?" Alternatively: "will I get sued for making an offensive attack on a marginal fire if a firefighter is injured...or worse?"

The answer to both questions is probably "yes." Or at least it could be "yes" depending on your specific legal protections and many other variables. Keep in mind that it's not particularly difficult to file a lawsuit in many states; having a lawsuit proceed through the legal system is another matter entirely.

So what do we do?

Well, for starters it's important to know the specifics about your department's potential legal liabilities in advance. Beyond that, training to make the right calls is critical, but we're still left with the difficulties faced by many departments with limited or reduced operational capacity, for any reason.

It's a tough situation and one we probably need to continue talking about...

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.



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