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Perhaps you are wondering how we are going to integrate back-to-basics ideas and breaking news out of Lairdsville, NY. Hang on. Many of you have been following the criminal trial of a volunteer assistant fire chief charged for his involvement in a tragic live-fire training exercise, covered on the Internet at Firehouse.com. For those of you who are not familiar with the case, we will go over some of the pertinent facts.
On Sept. 25, 2001 the assistant chief of Lairdsville, age 30, was allegedly the officer in charge of a live-fire training exercise for the Lairdsville Fire Company, one of three companies in the Westmoreland Fire District, located in central New York State not far from the city of Utica. The fire company had acquired a two-story wood-frame house for training and planned to use it for that purpose on that September night. In the ensuing tragedy a firefighter with no experience at all (it was his first training exercise) was killed and two other firefighters were severely burned, one of whom was the 21-year-old safety officer and the fire chief's son.
Many questions come to mind, but the one that I would ask is, where were the experienced senior firefighters who let this situation unfold? That could be the subject of another article.
Part of the defense raised by the assistant chief's attorney was the lack of knowledge by the fire department, the firefighters and the fire officers of the existence of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standards in general and NFPA 1403, the live-fire training standard, in particular. I believe that this is a landmark, precedent-setting case that will impact the fire service for years to come - and not just in the area of live-fire training, but in all fire department day-to-day operations. Why? Because of the guilty verdict, the alleged lack of knowledge about NFPA standards and the attorney trying to use that as part of his defense.
How does all of this relate to operating emergency vehicles?
Let's look at a normal driving rule. It is unlawful in any state to consume a certain amount of alcohol and drive a motor vehicle. Yet most motor vehicle operators do not have a copy of their respective state vehicle and traffic laws on their nightstands at the ready for bedtime reading. However, if you drink enough alcohol, drive and get caught, you will probably go to jail, whether you have read your state's vehicle and traffic laws lately or not. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break that law or better yet ignore the law.
What makes the Lairdsville tragedy a landmark case is it is the first known case in which an NFPA standard was used, in part, to secure a guilty verdict in a fire department criminal case. For years, NFPA standards have been used in fire department civil court cases; in some instances, standards were used so that firefighters could sue each other.
In keeping with our back-to-basics theme, these are some of the NFPA rules that you may be obligated to follow, in regard to both civil and criminal law, as you operate emergency vehicles:
4-2. Drivers/Operators of Fire Department Vehicles.
4-2.1. Fire department vehicles shall be operated only by members who have successfully completed an approved driver training program or by student drivers who are under the supervision of a qualified driver. Driver/operators of fire apparatus shall meet the requirements specified in 3-3.3 of this standard.
4-2.2. Drivers of fire department vehicles shall have valid driver's licenses. Vehicles shall be operated in compliance with all traffic laws, including sections pertaining to emergency vehicles, and any requirements of the authority having jurisdiction.
4-2.3. Drivers of fire department vehicles shall be directly responsible for the safe and prudent operation of the vehicles under all conditions. When the driver is under the direct supervision of an officer, that officer shall also assume responsibility for the actions of the driver.