Rope Rescue, NFPA Compliance and Liability

Today’s burning question: Are there any cases where a fire department has been held liable because personnel used a piece of rope rescue hardware that was appropriate for the task, but did not meet NFPA 1983? The reason I ask is every tech rescue instructor I have ever had stressed that all our hardware must be NFPA 1983 compliant or we could be sued. In addition our Chiefs insist “we can’t even buy a carabineer unless it has an NFPA stamp on it in case we end up in court!” It seems to me, we are paying extra for nothing more than the NFPA stamp. The same item made by the same manufacturer without the stamp is much cheaper.

Answer: Great question – and as you expected – I have not seen a single case where a fire department or emergency entity was sued (let alone held liable) because they used rescue hardware that was appropriate for the task but non-NFPA compliant. More specifically – if the two items were in fact identical except for the NFPA compliance certification, a jury would likely not even be allowed to know about the difference because it would be irrelevant.

However, we cannot and should not allow safety concerns to be driven solely by liability concerns. I just discussed that last week in regards to Liability and Bail Out Systems. Our focus needs to be on preventing the liability-creating event from occurring, not whether we can be held liable.

A well-trained high-angle rescue professional is certainly capable of deciding on the appropriate equipment for a given operation without significantly jeopardizing safety or increasing liability. The additional expense for NFPA compliant equipment is a function of the fact that the manufacturing process and end products are independently verified by a 3rd party to meet NFPA requirements. Normal climbing equipment is not subject to third party verification. The devices could be identical in every respect… or the non-compliant device could be overrated, mislabeled, defective, or a counterfeit look-alike. How would you possibly know?

Personally, I have no problem working off non-NFPA compliant equipment that meets industry standards for climbing – like CMC. In fact back when I was a ski patroller I used non-NFPA compliant gear. Of course that was back in the day… but even after NFPA 1983 was issued in 1985, my chair-lift self-evac system was not NFPA compliant. That was a personal question related to my safety. I made the decision and I took the risks.

If my wife and children were trapped somewhere and needed to be rescued – and I had a choice about whether the rescuers would use non-compliant equipment or NFPA compliant equipment – I would choose the NFPA compliant equipment every time. If I was buying rope rescue equipment for my sons – or my firefighters – to use, I would buy NFPA compliant equipment. That choice is not about my safety. There is a level of assurance that goes along with NFPA compliance.

To me it is not a liability issue. We have to stop thinking about things in terms of liability and do things because it is the right thing to do. The fact that there have been no lawsuits over the use on non-NFPA compliant rescue equipment does not mean it is a wise thing to do.

I am sure you are familiar with municipal purchasing practices, and the low bid mentality. The bigger the department, the more removed the user of the equipment is from the purchasing decision. Ordering non-NFPA compliant equipment through a municipal purchasing process is not like walking into a reputable mountaineering shop and purchasing the equipment myself. Some pencil-pusher in purchasing is ordering the equipment from a low-bid provider – both of whom have an incentive to provide me with the absolute minimum at the lowest cost. How do I have confidence that what I need is what I am getting? When my firefighters will be relying on the equipment – I am going to specify that the equipment is NFPA compliant.

It’s not based on fear of liability.

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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