EVOC: Fire Chief Cars, Insurance & the Law

Recently, a volunteer fire chief from Long Island, NY, was followed to work in a fire-district-owned vehicle about 50 miles from the chief’s home and ambushed by a local reporter asking about his personal use of a department vehicle. On Long Island...


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Recently, a volunteer fire chief from Long Island, NY, was followed to work in a fire-district-owned vehicle about 50 miles from the chief’s home and ambushed by a local reporter asking about his personal use of a department vehicle.

On Long Island, most fire departments buy SUVs for chiefs and assistant chiefs for fire department as well as personal use, including bringing the vehicle to and from work. It is common to see these vehicles in New York City, where many suburban fire chiefs work. As I teach emergency vehicle operations classes, many questions are asked about this practice. There appears to be a great deal of confusion, misunderstanding and a little gray area thrown in for good measure. This column will address these issues.

The first question that must be answered by the authority having jurisdiction is whether a chief’s vehicle is just a response vehicle, for use in responding to calls, or represents some degree of compensation for an individual taking on the enormous responsibility and liability of being a fire chief, which is basically another full-time job over and above the chief’s regular job that pays the bills and feeds the family. I’m not suggesting that a fire chief should be allowed to take a chief’s car on an all-expenses-paid, cross-country road trip at taxpayer expense. However, if the authority having jurisdiction does not offer this type of compensation for responsibility, liability and time needed to be a fire chief, then the pool of firefighters and officers capable of performing these duties will quickly evaporate.

The next question is whether the authority having jurisdiction should allow the fire chief’s family to ride in the vehicle. The answer may have more to do with insurance than anything else. But in any event the authority having jurisdiction in conjunction with the fire chief and assistant chiefs should be able to come up with some logical agreement as it relates to the proper use of these vehicles, understanding that the more restrictions placed on the vehicle, the less likely someone would want the job.

 

Protecting Yourself

Speaking of insurance, that is one of the biggest motivators for municipalities to purchase these vehicles, for if they do not and the fire chief uses his or her personal vehicle and gets in an accident performing fire chief’s duties, the unknowing fire chief may be putting his or her personal finances at risk.

It is common practice in some states (New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, for example) for volunteer fire chiefs, fire marshals, fire coordinators, EMTs and arson investigators to put red emergency lights and sirens on their personal vehicles. Elsewhere (in Massachusetts, Michigan and Wisconsin, to name a few), it is common for firefighters and emergency medical providers to put emergency lights and sirens on their personal vehicles.

In Wisconsin, for example, vehicle and traffic law (Chapter 340) defines emergency vehicles as “Privately owned motor vehicles being used by deputy state fire marshals or by personnel of a full-time or part-time fire department or by members of a volunteer fire department while enroute to a fire or on an emergency call pursuant to orders of their chief or other commanding officer… Privately owned motor vehicles that are all of the following:

1. Designated or authorized by an ambulance service or rescue squad chief in writing annually.

2. Used by an emergency medical technician licensed under s. 256.15 (Emergency Medical Services Personnel; Licensure; Certification; Training) or an ambulance driver or first responder authorized by the chief of an ambulance service or rescue squad.”

The questions now become who is insuring the private vehicle – probably you, the owner, and not the fire department – and what personal liability have you undertaken by using your vehicle as an emergency vehicle?

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