Fire District May Refuse to Respond to Property Outside Its Response Area

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld the right of a fire district to refuse to respond to an address outside of its designated response district. The suit was brought in 2015 by the Dunn’s Corner Fire District seeking a declaratory judgment that it was not required to respond to the former Bradford Dying Association property.

The property, renamed the Bradford Industrial Park, was an older industrial complex located outside of Dunn’s Corner’s geographical boundaries. It had historically been the responsibility of the Bradford Fire District to provide fire protection. In 1980, the state legislature changed the Bradford Fire District’s boundaries specifically to exclude the complex.

In 2013, the Dunn’s Corner Fire District entered into an agreement to handle emergency responses for the Bradford Fire District. After a large number false alarms at the Bradford Industrial Park property, Dunn’s Corner sent the property’s owner, BPF Realty, LLC, a bill for services rendered. BPF reportedly refused to pay the bill prompting Dunn’s Corner to decide to discontinue responding to the location.

Despite the fact that Dunn’s Corner decided it would stop responding to the property, the regional dispatch center, Westerly Dispatch, continued dispatching it to the property. Thereafter, Dunn’s Corner filed suit naming Westerly Dispatch’s parent company, Westerly Ambulance Corps, BPF Realty, LLC, and the Bradford Fire District as defendants. While the complaint included a number of allegations, the primary issue before the court was whether Dunn’s Corner was under an obligation to respond to the property given that the property was neither in their own fire district nor within the boundaries of the Bradford Fire District.

In 2017, the trial court sided with the Dunn’s Corner Fire District, concluding it was not under an obligation to respond to BPF’s property. That decision prompted BPF to appeal the matter to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

In a decision authored by Chief Justice Paul Suttell and handed down Tuesday, the court began with a quote from Ted Williams:

“That’s the life, being a fireman. It sure beats the hell out of being a ballplayer. I’d rather be a fireman.”

The court went on to uphold the trial court’s ruling, rejecting both of BPF’s arguments that the trial judge erred along procedural grounds. The exact grounds for the ruling would only be of interest to the legal eagles, suffice it to say: “BPF has failed to advance a meaningful appellate argument”.

Of more interest to firefighters was a footnote in the decision about the history of fire districts in Rhode Island:

  • We pause to note that fire districts are a cherished, if not problematic, vestige of Rhode Island history. Tracing their origins largely to thriving mill villages, there were 42 fire districts in the state, ranging in size from 0.1 to 58 square miles as of 2004 and servicing populations from approximately 180 to 30,000 people. Of the 42 districts, only 33 actually fight fires. See Department of Revenue, Division of Municipal Finance, Report on the Rhode Island Fire Districts Based on Annual Fire District Survey 2013 (released March 2014).

Here is a copy of the decision: Dunns Corner Fire District v Westerly Ambulance et al

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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