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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


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?

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