Public’s Access to Fire Stations as Public Buildings

Today’s burning question: Since fire stations are public buildings, does that mean anyone can come into a fire station and take photos whenever they want? I have no problem with citizens videotaping us in the line of duty as long as they are not interfering with our operations or putting themselves or others in danger. My question involves the right of citizens to come into and film inside the fire station. Aren’t there limits to their First Amendment right to film us? If our bay doors are open, and a citizen-journalist comes inside, I would guess that is legal. But at what point do the firefighters who work in the fire station have an expectation of privacy? Can visitors be limited to a vestibule area? Do they have a right to enter the station’s living quarters? The bunk-rooms? At what point would I be within my rights to deny entry into our public building?

Answer: Great questions and very pertinent in light of the increasing numbers of citizen-journalists who seem intent on obnoxiously pushing the limits with government employees on camera hoping to create the next great “viral video”.

While fire stations are public buildings, so are court houses, prisons, and schools. Heck… even the White House is a public building. The public does not have a right to roam about freely in a public building simply because the building is owned by a governmental entity.

The areas of any public building open to the public should be clearly designated by those with responsibility for the building. Your comment “At what point would I be within my rights to deny entry into our public building?” concerns me because that decision should not be left up to you, unless you are the fire chief.

The fire department should have policies that specify what parts of its buildings are open to the public, as well as any hour of the day and/or day of the week restrictions that are applicable.

I’d recommend a formal policy that prohibits all visitors from any part of the fire station except for certain designated locations (example: apparatus floor, classroom/meeting room, etc.) during certain hours (example: 8:00am to 8:00pm), and requires all visitors to be accompanied by a firefighter. Additional exceptions could be added to allow for emergencies and with written permission from the fire chief.

The problem is when a department has no formal policy and members do not know how to handle a visitor who wants to go where ever it is they want to go, the stage is set for an ugly confrontation. Armed with a policy that can be shown to the visitor, and if necessary to a police officer (so that the person can be escorted from the premises), the pressure is off the firefighter or company officer. The citizen is then left with the option of challenging the department’s policy, as opposed to challenging the authority of a firefighter or company officer who was merely flying by the seat of his pants.

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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