Prescott Ponders Life After Yarnell Hill Disaster

An editorial appeared Sunday in the Prescott (Arizona) News asking a rather sobering question:  in light of $65 million in claims against the City of Prescott and $273 million in claims against various governmental entities following the Yarnell Hill Fire that claimed the lives 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots: “Will public entities be able to afford fire departments in the future?”

Citing 13 claims from the families of deceased firefighters and 34 from property owners, the editorial continued its line of questions:

  • Is this the beginning of the death of public fire departments?
  • If fire departments can be sued because they didn't stop a home from burning down, will municipalities be able to afford to continue to provide fire protection?
  • Is there any way any city in this country can afford to prudently hire and train a hotshot crew now?
  • How can a volunteer fire department be feasible in this day and age?
  • What will these lawsuit threats do to interagency agreements?
  • Will fire departments be willing to put their reputations and legal liabilities on the line for a neighboring community in the future?
  • Can they afford to take the risk?
  • Will there be new and possibly onerous laws? "All homes and businesses must install sprinkler systems." If it isn't legally mandated, will it become an issue when you buy your home/business insurance?
  • Will people be able to purchase insurance now if they live in a forest/chaparral wild land interface?
  • Will an insurance company demand defensible space in order to provide coverage?

Are those really the questions that need to be asked? Seriously????

I readily admit that I do not know many the details the Yarnell Hill fire. Wildland fires are not my strong suit to begin with. Most of my fire experience has been in an urban/structural environment. But from a Fire Law perspective, when I hear people asking “Chicken Little” questions like this after a disaster, another set of questions flash across my radar screen:

  • Were these firefighters and their supervisors properly trained in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Was the department properly staffed in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Were personnel properly equipped in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?
  • Was the incident being properly managed in accordance with national standards and industry best practices?

If the answers to the above questions are all yes, then as tragic as the disaster was – the $65/$273 million in claims should be of little concern. Firefighting is a dangerous business and bad things can happen even when we do everything right. The claims are defensible and there is no need for people to panic over the filing of claims and lawsuits.

ON THE OTHER HAND… if the answers to those questions are no… then there is a much more serious question that goes beyond $65/$273 million in claims to be asked: why not? Why weren’t personnel properly trained… why wasn’t the department properly staffed… why weren’t the firefighters properly equipped… why weren’t they being properly managed… ???

In my work, I see elected officials who time and time again make a conscious (usually well-intentioned but occasionally cynical anti-firefighter) decision to underfund their fire department. They make an assumption that there is no real downside to doing so. Based on experience and history they may plausibly believe that even if a disaster occurs others (fire chiefs) will be blamed/scape-goated and the decision-making role of the elected official will never be subject to public scrutiny.

As I said above, I do not know enough about the Yarnell Hill fire to know the answers to these questions. Perhaps underfunding was not an issue. Maybe the responders had everything they needed to do their jobs safely and properly. My point here is that too often we allow elected officials who make important decisions about the level of services that will be provided – to walk away from any responsibility for certain financially driven (er… politically driven) decisions.

One way officials get to walk away from responsibility is when the discussion is redirected away from legitimate questions about who made the decisions that set the stage for the disaster to happen and redirected to “Chicken Little” type questions like those being asked in the Prescott News.

Let’s be honest: underfunding a fire department – whether it results in poorly trained, poorly staffed, poorly equipped, or poorly managed firefighters – has a cost. That cost becomes due when a disaster happens. Hopefully the “Chicken Littles” can be kept at bay long enough to figure out what’s what in Prescott/Yarnell and whether officials responsible for any improper decisions should be held accountable.

Then again, perhaps this was a situation where a well trained, well staffed, well equipped, and well managed crew ran into a truly impossible situation… in which case defending against the $65/$273 million in claims should be a relatively easy matter.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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