Police Fire Wars in Tennessee

The latest skirmish in the on-going “who’s in charge” battle between police and fire (which I call police-fire wars) occurred Tuesday in Knox County, Tennessee where a Knox County Sheriff cited a firefighter for failing to move his apparatus at the scene of a vehicle accident.

The incident occurred on I-75 southbound. A Rural Metro engine was blocking the southbound lanes, and Knox County Sheriff’s Office Patrolman Terry Wright directed the driver, Matthew Clift, four times to move the vehicle. He was then cited for failure to obey a lawful order.

Knox County Sheriff Jimmy Jones and Rural/Metro Chief Jerry Harnish both said incidents like this are rare and declined to comment on the specifics beyond the fact they plan to meet soon to discuss it.

While admittedly these kinds of disputes are rare (I have roughly 20 such cases in my database), the fact they happen at all is a cause for concern in the day and age where everyone is “supposedly” trained and using in ICS.

One thing that particularly bothers me about these cases: police officers do not arrest or give tickets to each other at incident scenes for “failure to obey”. Can you imagine a patrolman giving his sergeant a ticket because the sergeant didn’t obey his order to move his vehicle? Now that would be a headline, wouldn’t it? Why do you suppose that is?

Somehow police officers are able to deal with the frustration of their fellow police officers not “obeying” them… it is only those “other” folks – firefighters, paramedics and “civilians” who get cited… And maybe that is the problem – to police officers we are nothing more than “civilians”… part of the great masses who are there to serve as the recipients of the officer’s services… Those who must obey.

I am sure the officer would say “hey, they have to respect the law… we all have to respect the law”. And he would be right. We do…  ALL OF US… have to respect the law.

Back to ICS… My question in these cases remains – who was in charge. If the police officer was in charge, or was carrying out the commands of the IC, then the firefighter and his officer have some explaining to do. That is the end of the story barring some imminent safety threat that was evident to the firefighters but not to the police officer.

If the fire department was in charge –OR IF THERE WAS UNIFIED COMMAND AS THERE LIKELY SHOULD HAVE BEEN, and the police officer was acting outside the scope of his assigned duties as a responder then the ticket not only should be dismissed, the officer should be investigated and perhaps charged with interfering with a firefighter in the performance of his duties…. Because we all have to respect the law. All of us.

That is exactly what happened in Leadville, Colorado in 2010 when a deputy sheriff arrested a fire captain on an EMS run because he refused to leave the scene without seeing the patient. The charges were later dropped against the captain and the deputy was charged criminally with obstructing a firefighter. More on the Leadville case.

More on the Knox County case.

The police-fire wars problem can be solved quickly if police officers who arrest/interfere with firefighters at emergency scenes are themselves charged criminally with interfering with a firefighter. Just as a patrolman realizes he cannot issue a ticket to his sergeant (or another patrolman) because he didn’t obey the patrolman’s order to move his vehicle… the same thought process ought to apply with other emergency responders. We are on the same team!

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 45 years of fire service experience and 35 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, 4th ed. 2022) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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