Who's In Charge At Accident Scenes?

A fire chief who was arrested by a police officer for shutting down an interstate highway at the scene of an accident has been acquitted of all charges. But the debate touched off by this unusual incident rages on and has drawn nationwide attention to the...


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That ambiguity prompted fire and police officials to start drafting a memorandum of understanding to clarify the lines of authority. A spokesman for the Prince Georges Fire Department - which firmly supported Chief Reising - told Firehouse: "We want the maximum safety for our personnel and if it means we have to shut down traffic lanes to create a buffer zone, that's what we have to do."

I must disclose that Chief Reising is my personal friend and he has a well-earned reputation for being a tough and experienced firefighter. As he describes the incident, he was only doing what any responsible fire officer would do. "I just hope the public realizes that when we do this, we're doing it to protect them, our own people and the accident victims," Reising explains.

This is not the first time that fire and police officers have clashed over the question of who's in charge. But it's the first I've ever heard of in which a fire chief was arrested. More important, we all know of too many tragic incidents in which fire-rescue personnel were killed or injured when struck by passing cars on the scenes of accidents. Bitter experience has taught that a highway can be just as dangerous to firefighters as a burning building.

The laws on who's in charge vary from state to state and it's imperative that every fire department operates under clearly defined lines of authority. As for public opinion objecting to the closing of traffic lanes, the answer to that is to ask the angry motorists how they would feel if they or their relatives were trapped in a wrecked car and waiting for a rescue squad or ambulance to arrive.


Hal Bruno, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a retired political director for ABC News in Washington and served for 40 years as a volunteer firefighter.