Today’s Burning Question: Can someone just create a fire department? We have a person in our response district that purchased a used fire truck, and he has now approached the mayor about responding to alarms. The fire districts in our area have all turned him down but we are concerned about what will happen if he just shows up at emergency scenes. He calls himself a fire chief, has painted the name Independent Fire Department on his engine, and he even has a badge and a uniform. We have no idea about his credentials and are concerned that he may simply start responding to alarms. Can we stop him?
Answer: You can’t make this stuff up. Chances are you can stop him, but the final answer will vary from state to state, and jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some states, fire departments must be approved by the state fire marshal – so that right there would stop him in his tracks. In some states, fire protection services have been delegated to the counties – so in such a state the county would have to approve or authorize the “Independent Fire Department” to respond.
However, in most states – there are a hodge-podge of laws, regulations, charters, and authorities that control who can deliver fire protection services. Responsibility for firefighting may be delegated or assigned to a given fire department by law. For example, a city charter may assign firefighting within the corporate limits to the municipal fire department or to certain volunteer fire companies. A township may be created specifically to provide fire and police protection to a given area… or perhaps a fire district or fire protection district may be created to provide fire protection. In any of these cases, the entities would have clear legal authority to regulate who fights fires within their corporate limits.
But in some places there is no specific law that authorizes anyone to provide firefighting services. It just sort of happened. 100 years ago, 75 years ago, 50 years ago, some guys got together, bought a fire truck, and started a fire department similar to what the self-appoint fire chief of IFD is doing. In many places the local volunteer fire companies even pre-dated the existence of a local government. Once the town was created, the town may have provided funding for the fire company. The point here is that these fire departments just sort of happened without any laws or express legal authority. Let’s call these “ambiguous jurisdictions” where it is not clear who authorized the fire departments to provide firefighting… it just sort of happened.
Back to your question – the ability to stop the Independent Fire Department from responding will turn on whether there is clear legal authority to regulate fire departments, or if you are in one of those ambiguous jurisdictions.
In your question, you indicated there are fire districts in your area. If that is the case, then it would be up to the fire district to approve or disapprove any new volunteer fire departments. The same would go for a municipal fire department, or a county fire department. Having clear legal authority would allow the fire district to prohibit him from responding and if push came to shove, have him charged with impersonating a firefighter, interfering with firefighting operations, or similar offenses.
In an ambiguous jurisdiction… we’ll leave that for another blog… but it would much more complicated.
Note: Name, department and state withheld to protect the innocent.