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Consider the following from my home state of Rhode Island: § 23-37-1 Police authority of fire company officers at fire – Right of entry. The chief, chief engineer, assistant engineer, captain, lieutenant or any other executive officer of any…organization organized or created for the purpose of extinguishing fires and preventing fire hazards…in response to an alarm for such a fire shall, in the absence of the chief of police, have the power to suppress any tumult or disorder and to command from the inhabitants of the city or town all needful assistance for the suppression of fires and in the preservation of property exposed to fire; the officers above enumerated shall also have authority to go onto and enter any property or premises and to do whatever may reasonably be necessary in the performance of their duties while engaged in the work of extinguishing any fire or performing any duties incidental thereto.
Here is a local municipal code provision from Downers Grove, IL: Section 17.19. Right of entry of fire department – The fire department and the members thereof shall have the right to enter upon any premises within the Village for the purpose of extinguishing any fire or saving persons or property thereat, or securing a supply of water or to find any cistern, well or other water supply and determine the best way to reach the same in case of fire or in the performance of their duties, and it shall be unlawful for any person to interfere with, prevent or obstruct the department or any member thereof from so coming or being on such premises. (R.O. 1925, § 153.)
Even in the absence of specific statutes, courts have recognized the unique challenge the threat of fire poses. Consider the following quote from the Supreme Court of California in an 1853 case that arose when a San Francisco house was intentionally blown up with gunpowder in a tactical effort to stop an advancing fire on Dec. 24, 1849: “The right to destroy property to prevent the spread of a conflagration as been traced to the highest law of necessity and the natural rights of man, independent of society or civil government. It is referred by moralists and jurists to the same great principle, which justifies the exclusive appropriation of a plank in a shipwreck, though the life of another be sacrificed; with the throwing overboard goods in a tempest for the safety of a vessel; with the trespassing upon the lands of another to escape death by an enemy…”
“A house or fire, or those in its immediate vicinity, which serve to communicate the flames, becomes a nuisance which it is lawful to abate, and the private rights of the individual yield to the considerations of general convenience and the interests of society. Were it otherwise, one stubborn person might involve a whole city in ruin by refusing to allow the destruction of a building which would cut off the flames and check the progress of the fire, and that too, when it was perfectly evident that his building must be consumed.” (Surocco v Geary, 3 Cal 69; 58 Am Dec 385, January 1853)
It’s Not About You
We began this column by asking difficult questions raised by Lisa Boyle about whether the fire department should have honored her request to stop responding, not enter her home and leave when she requested. Based on history, philosophy, practicality and the law, the clear answer to those questions is that the fire department did not respond to her son’s 911 call solely for her benefit. The Slate Hill Volunteer Fire Department responded on behalf of the community because what happens in Boyle’s house – fire-wise – could affect others in the community. A firefighter’s right of entry to investigate or extinguish a fire is not based on the consent of the property owner, nor even on the needs of the property owner. It is based on the needs of society.
As much as the above review of the history, philosophy, practicality and the law related to a firefighter’s right to enter explains answers our initial questions, there remains an interesting question: What if there is no chance of a fire extending from one person’s home or property to another? Perhaps the fire is in a rural area and presents no public threat whatsoever. Assuming the fire department could address the ownership issue (a huge assumption), should the authority of the fire department be limited in such circumstances? We will leave that question for another time – but for now the law does not recognize such an exception.