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To fully understand the fire department’s authority, we need to look at this topic from four different perspectives: historical, philosophical, practical and legal.
Understanding the right of a firefighter to enter someone’s home or business requires consideration of the historical context in which the law developed. Fires have decimated most urban areas at one time or another. The Jamestown, VA, fire of 1608 nearly destroyed the first English settlement in the New World (see “Protecting Jamestown, Then and Now” by Charles Werner, Firehouse®, April 2007). The Great Fires of Chicago, London and Shanghai are but a few examples of conflagrations that have helped shape the law. Unlike a simple medical ailment, a fire does not affect one person. On the contrary, a fire left unchecked threatens neighbors and could potentially devastate an entire community. Virtually every city on every continent has learned and relearned that lesson. This historical discussion leads us into a philosophical discussion.
In some ways, a fire can be compared to a deadly infectious disease such as the plague, smallpox or leprosy. Until the development of antibiotics, these diseases warranted extreme measures, including forced quarantine and the burning of contaminated property. The threat to the many justified the deprivation of the civil rights of those infected.
In a similar vein, the right of firefighters to enter peoples’ homes and properties does not flow from a duty to help a particular property owner whose property is on fire. Rather, it flows from the risk that a fire in someone’s home poses to the public at large. No doubt firefighters have a moral duty to the particular homeowner whose house in on fire, but the reality is that there is a larger duty owed to the person’s neighbors, the neighbors’ neighbors and so on. This duty owed to the public in general is what allowed firefighters in earlier times to destroy uninvolved buildings in advance of a fire in an effort to cut off the fuel supply.
Compare the duty a fire department owes to the public to extinguish a fire with the duty owed to an individual patient on a medical incident. The right of a person to decline medical aid flows from the fact that each person has a right to be free from bodily contact, a right that is respected and enforceable by both civil and criminal law. Without the patient’s consent we have no right to treat or touch the patient, absent a public health emergency.
While the historical and philosophical perspectives make a compelling argument for firefighters to have a right to enter, consider what would be involved logistically if the law granted property owners the power to stop a firefighter from entering a property. At a point in time when firefighters can least afford to delay operations, they would be placed in the position of having to determine whether the person seeking to stop them could do so lawfully. Essentially, firefighters would have to determine whether a person claiming to be the homeowner or property owner is who he says he is and is legally authorized to deny firefighters access.
The potential for complex title issues involving ownership together with the impact of mortgage rights, tax liens, divorces, leases, wills, partnerships and a host of other legal quagmires is mind boggling. Add to that the possibility of someone acting in bad faith and it is apparent it would be unreasonable to expect firefighters to make ownership determinations of property under emergency conditions.
From the legal perspective, the authority of a fire department to respond to alarms and enter homes and businesses flows primarily from laws at the state and local levels. These laws give fire departments broad rights to enter homes and businesses for the specific purpose of extinguishing fires and mitigating fire hazards, without owner consent.