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While fire officers have to be aware of the massive traffic jam that results when they close a major highway, the fire chief in the Maryland case clearly was justified in stopping traffic on the interstate. "Had the incident occurred in this country, it would have been the police officers who would have been arrested by the fire officers," writes Deputy Chief Luke Hartog, of the Krugersdorp Emergency Services in South Africa. He reports that fire chiefs in his country have police power and the authority to arrest anyone who hinders a fire officer in carrying out his duties (see Forum, page 10).
There is no such federal law in the United States. However, Rep. Tony Hall (D-Ohio) and Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Virginia) have introduced the "Roadside Emergency Safety Act" in Congress. It calls for the Department of Transportation to conduct a nationwide study of highway emergency safety to determine the scope of the problem and what can be done at the federal level to protect fire-rescue and police personnel at accident scenes and other roadside emergencies.
Overlooked in the emotional response to this incident is that fact that police officers as well as fire-rescue personnel have been killed and injured on the scenes of accidents. Indiana just passed a state law requiring a one-lane buffer zone around any accident on a road with more than two lanes. It's the direct result of several fatal accidents in which state troopers were struck by passing cars.
If your department does not have guidelines covering the fire-police relationship, it makes sense to sit down with your local and state police to work them out. But stay cool and remember that every hour of every day, firefighters, ambulance crews and police officers are responding to emergency incidents and working together without any problems over who's in charge.