Police-Fire Wars: Who Is in Charge?

Firefighters and members of law enforcement work side by side, day in and day out. In 99% of cases, the relationships are respectful, even cordial. However, occasionally conflicts arise. Consider the following cases: In May 2003, Captain David...


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Firefighters and members of law enforcement work side by side, day in and day out. In 99% of cases, the relationships are respectful, even cordial. However, occasionally conflicts arise. Consider the following cases:

In May 2003, Captain David Wilson of the Robertson Fire Protection District in Missouri was arrested after refusing a Hazelwood police officer's order to move a fire truck parked at the scene of a motor vehicle accident on Interstate 270 (see page 44).

In November 2006, Deputy Chief Robert Jenkins of the Rockaway Township, NJ, Fire Department was arrested by a New Jersey state trooper after he refused to move a fire truck that was blocking the right lane of Route 80 at an accident scene.

In January 2007, a Tennessee state trooper intentionally crashed his cruiser into a car operated by Lieutenant Michael Huskey, a volunteer firefighter responding to an alarm, because he believed Huskey was eluding his efforts to pull him over.

All three of these cases resulted in the arrests of firefighters and sensational headlines that called into question the professionalism of both the fire and law enforcement organizations involved. In each case formal criminal charges were dismissed or never filed. The Missouri and Kentucky cases also resulted in the filing of lawsuits against the police officers involved, with Wilson recently obtaining a federal district court jury verdict in his favor in the amount of $17,500.

What led to these confrontations and more importantly what can be done to prevent them from happening in the future?

The scenarios that resulted in the arrests of the firefighters in these cases and numerous others can be analyzed on many levels, but essentially comes down to four primary causes: unclear formal legal authority, organizational policy conflicts, stereotypes and personal grudges. In some cases, several of these factors combine to contribute to a situation escalating to the point where a firefighter is arrested.

- Unclear formal legal authority. At the root of most cases in which a police officer arrests a firefighter at an emergency scene for refusing to comply with an order is the basic question of who has the legal authority to be "in charge" of an incident scene. In other words, who is authorized to give a lawful order, and who is duty bound to follow that order. One basic proposition must be understood from the start: Neither firefighters nor police officers have the authority to self-declare themselves to be the ultimate "in-charge" person or agency at an emergency scene. Rather, any authority to be in charge exists as a result of a complex interrelationship of state and local law.

Complicating the "who is in charge" question even further are overlapping levels of law enforcement and emergency service providers. For example, the responsibility for law enforcement may fall at the state, county or local level. State police, county sheriffs and local police officers often share responsibility for patrolling certain areas and have overlapping jurisdiction. Fire protection and EMS may be provided by county or regional fire authorities, municipal fire departments, fire districts or even volunteer fire companies that are completely separate from government. Factor in mutual aid responses and it becomes obvious that the interrelationships of these various organizations can create difficult legal waters. Determining who is in charge ahead of time is absolutely essential to avoid misunderstandings about authority.

In many cases, state or local law will dictate who is in charge of certain types of emergencies. However, in other cases, there is an absence of clear legal authority to determine who is in charge operationally. In other words, despite looking at all the relevant laws, it may not be evident who is legally in charge.

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