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, 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?

First, let us take a look at two case studies. Case one involves a volunteer fire chief. The fire department received a call for a motor vehicle accident (MVA) at 2 A.M. The chief responded from home in his personal pickup truck, turning on the warning lights and siren. (The warning devices were supplied by the fire department and owned by the village.) While responding to the MVA, a car crashed into the chief’s pickup truck. The pickup truck sustained $4,600 in damage and the accident was found to be 60% the fault of the civilian driver and 40% the fault of the fire chief. Who pays?

The chief first confronted the fire department and asked it to cover the 40% because the accident occurred while he was acting in his capacity as fire chief. The department told the fire chief to confront the mayor of the village, as he was acting as an agent of the village. The village told the fire chief that it neither owns nor insures the pickup truck. It was decided that because the village owned the lights and siren, it would pay the 40% to repair the chief’s pickup truck and he would not put a claim through his personal insurance. It was further decided that the village would obtain vehicles owned and insured by the village for the fire chief and his two assistant chiefs, an action that occurred as a direct result of this dilemma.

The second case study involves a volunteer assistant fire chief who was responding to a working fire. The assistant chief hit a patch of black ice, crashed into a bridge and did $2,000 worth of damage to his personal van. The assistant chief, not wanting to put a claim into his insurance company as he felt he was acting as an agent of the fire district, went to the district commissioners seeking payment for the repairs. Again, the district did not own or insure the assistant chief’s vehicle, but it was agreed that the district would pay for the repairs out of its general fund. Six months later, however, the district underwent a state audit. The fire district was admonished by the state for paying for repairs to a vehicle that it did not own.


Insurance Provisions

Not being an insurance expert, I reached out to the American Insurance Association and here is the information it provided. A volunteer fire department or municipal motor vehicle insurance policy would cover vehicles owned by the volunteer fire department or municipality. Vehicles owned by firefighters would not likely be included under the basic policy. In this case, the firefighter’s only coverage is the policy he or she has purchased for himself or herself. However, the volunteer fire department or municipality could purchase additional “non-owned vehicle coverage.” This additional protection for the firefighter’s vehicle would be over and above the coverage the firefighter has purchased. That means that the firefighter’s personal auto coverage would pay until the limits of the policy are exhausted. Additional damages owed the injured or their families would be covered by the non-owned vehicle coverage of the fire department or the municipality up to the limits of that policy. If there isn’t any non-owned vehicle coverage, and damages exceed the firefighter’s personal policy, the firefighter could be personally responsible for the damages exceeding his or her policy amount.


To Protect Assets

Because the firefighter may pose more than the ordinary motor vehicle accident risk, he or she should usually carry an amount significantly greater than the minimum coverage required by law. This coverage varies from state to state and is often in the $25,000 per person up to $50,000 bodily injury liability coverage for all victims in any one accident and $10,000 property damage liability. Firefighters with assets to protect should consider buying much more insurance and purchasing a liability “umbrella policy” that will increase limits by $1 million to $5 million, depending on how much additional coverage the firefighter feels he or she needs.

Under New York State insurance law, no points are to be assigned to accidents that occur when: any vehicle is being used in the line of duty, if the operator at the time of the accident was (a) a paid or volunteer member of any police or fire department, first-aid squad or any law enforcement; or (b) performing any other function on behalf of the state, any political subdivision thereof, a public authority, public benefit corporation, or any other governmental agency or instrumentality in a public emergency. Remember, this is New York State insurance law. It would be a good idea to check your state’s insurance laws as they relate to these issues.

It is important to make some recommendations based on the previously stated facts.

1. The authority having jurisdiction should provide vehicles for the fire chief and assistant chiefs. That does not mean the municipality should immediately go out and purchase three SUVs at $80,000 each. Many municipalities assign used police cars for use by fire chiefs until funding is available to provide newer vehicles. The important point here is that the municipality owns the vehicle and hence insures it, which may relieve the fire chief from incurring any costs due to an accident involving the vehicle.

2. If this is not feasible and you must use your personal vehicle as an emergency vehicle, you must compel the governing body (the fire district or the municipality) to purchase non-owned vehicle insurance. If the governing body does not purchase this insurance, you and your insurance carrier will be responsible for all liability, even if you respond as an emergency vehicle on the municipality’s behalf.

3. If you own a business, you could lose it in a lawsuit. Remember, your personal insurance is first. Once its limits are reached, then the non-owned vehicle insurance kicks in up to those limits if the authority having jurisdiction has provided such coverage. Finally, if the liability award exceeds both your personal insurance coverage and the municipal non-owned coverage, you will be responsible for whatever shortfall still exists. Having umbrella coverage will protect any assets that you have. Anyone using his or her personal vehicle as an emergency vehicle should have umbrella coverage, especially if you own a business.

4. Don’t turn your business vehicle into an emergency vehicle. It will become a mobile billboard that flashes the words “Sue me.” “Bill’s Plumbing & Heating” painted on the side of a pickup truck plus warning lights and a siren placed on top of the truck equal a potential disaster.

I have never met a firefighter who did not like being a firefighter, but the protection of your family and its assets must come first.

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I would like to thank the American Insurance Association for its help in the preparation of this column.