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Someone Created A New Fire Department In My Backyard

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.

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://firehousezen.com Mick Mayers

    Curt,

    As always, an interesting discussion. I would suggest that departments go even further than covering the fire issues. It is imperative that all the players know in advance who is the legal authority having jurisdiction and who is subordinate to whom in the varied and sundry issues we have to address daily. In a HAZMAT, who is the legally responsible response provider? In rescue? In rescue from a tower? In EMS?

    Our jurisdiction has specifically requested clarification on boundaries as well. How far out in the tidal waters are we responsible? And for what?

    By establishing these parameters, you can also better define your mission and ultimately, the reach of your budget, your disaster planning responsibilities, and so on. But an example for us is that while we have responsibility to provide “emergency response” within our jurisdiction, we will provide, say, rescue attempts for a car under the water. But if the car has been there for several hours and there is a poor chance of having a surviving victim (and it is thus, a recovery), we are no longer the lead agency, law enforcement is. They will establish command, we will work together under that direction or beside them, or subordinate to them. But in any case, we will support them and we make it clear to them that we are there for them.

    The days of ad hoc response, especially, as this blog relates to, in the framework of our legal responsbilities, are over. If you don’t know who is responsible for response to certain emergencies, you need to identify in advance who is. And if you are responsible but don’t possess the expertise, equipment, or budget, you’d better establish a plan on where to get that help, in advance, and in the form of an MOU. Otherwise, YOU will be left holding the bag.

    Thanks for giving me something to talk about today! :) Stay safe.

    • http://firelawblog.com Curt Varone

      Mick

      Great points!!!! You are absolutely correct, this goes way beyond fighting fires. It also harkens us back to the Alameda drowning case… what is our legal responsibility… and does that align with what the public expects us to do. We may say we don’t do water rescues…. but the public thinks we do…

      Part of the solution requires us to have a conversation with our elected officials so they understand the issues. We cannot address all of this ourselves – but it needs to start with us.

      BTW – Did I hear it snowed in SC?

  • David Costa

    Curt,
    The following link may be of interest. It’s regarding a volunteer fire department in New York City that has been ordered to stop operating. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/17/city-order-frustrates-bronx-volunteer-squad/

  • firefighter117

    This is how the fire dept. in my hometown started. Locals incorporated a non-profit organization to fight fires. Since the area was unincorporated, not in a fire district, etc. the township board could sanction whatever fire protection arrangement it wanted.

    Of course the county fought the establishment of the ‘new” fire dept. No can do. The township had the final say. The reason the “new” fire dept. was formed, was it was closer and the city volunteer fire dept. that provided service had no contract and had ample alcoholic beverages at fires.

    I seen it with my own eyes and was even offered a beer at a fire. Seen the whiskey bottle passed around by the so called city fire dept., too.

    Of course, multiple lies, backstabbings and the like were harped upon the newly formed fire dept.. Rather than look at the reason why the “new” fire dept. had to be formed: Couldn’t get “sober” services from the city fire dept, the locals formed their own.

    Fire protection policy is determined by local gov’t. If local people want their own fire dept., they should approach their local gov’t to enter into a fire protection arrangment. Remember that the taxpayers are the ones footing the bill and this is their community.