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Alerted by a passerby, a 14-year-old boy dials 911 to report a possible chimney fire in his house. Fire crews are dispatched, but the boy’s mother calls back to report she does not want the fire department to respond. She is informed that crews are already enroute. When personnel arrive at the scene, she meets the firefighters outside and reports the fire is out. She says there is no need for them to enter her house and asks them to leave.
Firefighters do not often think about issues like property rights and owner’s consent when responding to a structure fire. The right to enter is taken for granted, without much consideration for the legal niceties of landowner rights and personal privacy. Yet for other types of emergencies, firefighters are ever mindful of people’s rights. Take a medical emergency, for instance. One of the first things EMS personnel learn is that a person has a right to decline aid against medical advice.
Can a homeowner whose house is on fire refuse to let the fire department put out the fire? Can a homeowner with a smoke condition, or even an alarm sounding, stop firefighters at the door and prevent them from entering to investigate? And can a homeowner who initially asked for the fire department to respond because of a concern then demand that the fire department leave before firefighters believe the situation has been stabilized?
These questions arose following an incident in Orange County, NY, on Feb. 15, 2011, when a woman was upset because firefighters entered and would not leave her house. According to a March 12 article in the Times Herald-Record, Lisa Boyle’s 14-year-old son called 911 because he thought there was a chimney fire. The woman tried unsuccessfully to cancel the call. When firefighters from the Slate Hill Volunteer Fire Department arrived, she asked them to leave. The firefighters dutifully refused and remained in the house for the next hour investigating. Boyle referred to it as an “occupation” of her home and attended a fire district board meeting to express her frustration. She brought a local reporter with her to be sure her concerns were covered by the media.
At the board meeting, the fire district’s attorney, Shawn O’Connor, gave the fire department’s side of the argument: “We have to respond and we have to make sure there’s no fire and no threat…You didn’t know whether there was a fire in your house or not until they checked.” O’Connor also made reference to the possible liability the department could incur if there had been a fire and firefighters had not been diligent in investigating the initial report. The facts of the case offer us the opportunity to explore the scope of a fire department’s legal duty and authority.
Probably as much as any single issue, the legal duty of a fire department to respond to a fire distinguishes what we do as firefighters from what we do as emergency medical providers. To put it simply, a competent person may have the legal right to refuse medical treatment against medical advice, but a property owner (competent or otherwise) does not have a similar legal right to refuse firefighters the right to enter a property to look for the source of smoke, investigate an alarm or extinguish a fire.
Why should a competent adult be able to decline medical aid, but not refuse to let the fire department enter her home to investigate a possible fire? It is not because firefighters are more knowledgeable about the dangers of fire than a homeowner. It is not because fire departments are worried about legal liability if they do not enter, although liability is a valid concern. Both arguments are commonly cited as justification for a firefighter’s right of entry, but are really nothing more than the proverbial tail wagging the dog.