Burning Question: Liability Concerns Of A Volunteer Chief

Today’s burning question: What legal responsibility does a volunteer fire chief have for things that happen at the firehouse when the chief has left and gone home?  If things like drinking on station property (which is already prohibited), minors being allowed to drink, and sexually inappropriate comments being made to female junior firefighters occur, can the fire chief be held liable? Also what are the responsibilities of the officers present who didn’t do all they could do to stop it from happening?

Answer: As a general rule a fire chief (volunteer or career) is not personally liable for the conduct of subordinates over which he has no knowledge or control. The fire chief is under a duty to act as the reasonably prudent fire chief of like skill and training. He/she is not required to be clairvoyant.

There are a couple of caveats to the general rule. First – the fire department may still be liable for the misconduct that occurs. The fire chief could be sued in his capacity as the chief as a way to hold the fire department liable. The chief would not be personally liable, but could be named in the suit.

Second, if it turns out the fire chief knew or should have known that such behavior was going on, the liability problem worsens significantly for the fire chief. Without getting too deep into the legal complexities, a chief who knows/should know that such behavior is going on and fails to take reasonable steps to prevent it could be personally liable under several different theories, ranging from negligent supervision to a due process-related claim of deliberate indifference.

As for any subordinate officers who were present and failed to address the misconduct, they too may face personal liability for their failings. “Officers refusing to be officers.” Its not just a volunteer issue – in fact it is just as big an issue in the career service.

My solutions:

  1. Have clear policies on what conduct is prohibited. The policies should address drinking; sexual harassment; and hazing, pranks and bullying to name a few.
  2. Train all members on the policies with special emphasis to ensure that folks understand the “whys” behind the policies and the consequences for violations.
  3. Train officers separately to ensure they understand their obligation to act like officers. Make it clear that officers are responsible for what happens while they are present.
  4. When a member violates the policy, discipline the member. Show no favoritism nor engage in selective enforcement. Punishment does not have to be harsh (in fact harsh punishments can be counter productive by causing resentment, and leading members to cover up misconduct for fear of unjust punishment being handed down)… but the punishment does need to be enough to ensure the misconduct will not be repeated.
  5. If an officer is present when misconduct occurs and he/she fails to (a) stop or (b) report what he/she could not stop – he/she should be dealt with MORE HARSHLY than the member. THIS SHOULD BE TOLD TO OFFICERS BEFORE HAND so they understand that when they accept the promotion, the responsibility to intervene/present problems comes along with it. The members also need to be aware of this so they know when they misbehave in the presence of the officer, the officer has more at stake than they do.

These steps should help present future problems. Conversely, the failure to address what you now know to be a problem may set you up for personal liability in the future.

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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