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Understanding the right of a firefighter to enter someone’s home or business requires consideration of the historical context in which the law developed. Fires have decimated most urban areas at one time or another. The Jamestown, VA, fire of 1608 nearly destroyed the first English settlement in the New World (see “Protecting Jamestown, Then and Now” by Charles Werner, Firehouse®, April 2007). The Great Fires of Chicago, London and Shanghai are but a few examples of conflagrations that have helped shape the law.
Unlike a simple medical ailment, a fire does not affect one person. A fire left unchecked threatens neighbors and could potentially devastate an entire community. This historical discussion leads us into a philosophical discussion.
In some ways, a fire can be compared to a deadly infectious disease such as the plague, smallpox or leprosy. Until the development of antibiotics, these diseases warranted extreme measures, including forced quarantine and the burning of contaminated property. The threat to the many justified the deprivation of the civil rights of those infected.
In a similar vein, the right of firefighters to enter homes and property does not flow from a duty to help the owner of property that is on fire. Rather, it flows from the risk that a fire in someone’s home poses to the public at large. No doubt firefighters have a moral duty to the person whose house is on fire, but the reality is that a larger duty is owed to the person’s neighbors, the neighbors’ neighbors and so on. This duty owed to the public in general is what allowed firefighters in earlier times to destroy uninvolved buildings in advance of a fire in an effort to cut off the fuel supply.
Compare the duty a fire department owes to the public to extinguish a fire with the duty owed to an individual patient at a medical incident. The right of a person to decline medical aid flows from the fact that each person has a right to be free from bodily contact, a right that is respected and enforceable by both civil and criminal law. Without the patient’s consent, we have no right to treat or touch the patient, absent a public health emergency.
While the historical and philosophical perspectives make a compelling argument for firefighters to have a right to enter, consider what would be involved logistically if the law granted property owners the power to stop a firefighter from entering a property. At a time when firefighters can least afford to delay operations, they would have to determine whether the person seeking to stop them could do so lawfully. Essentially, firefighters would have to determine whether a person claiming to be the homeowner or property owner is who he says he is and is legally authorized to deny firefighters access.
The potential for complex title issues involving ownership together with the impact of mortgage rights, tax liens, divorces, leases, wills, partnerships and a host of other legal quagmires is mind boggling. Add to that the possibility of someone acting in bad faith and it is apparent it would be unreasonable to expect firefighters to make ownership determinations of property under emergency conditions.
From the legal perspective, the authority of a fire department to respond to alarms and enter homes and businesses flows primarily from laws at the state and local levels. These laws give fire departments broad rights to enter homes and businesses for the specific purpose of extinguishing fires and mitigating fire hazards without owner consent.
Consider the following from Rhode Island: sect; 23-37-1 Police authority of fire company officers at fire – Right of entry. The chief, chief engineer, assistant engineer, captain, lieutenant or any other executive officer of any…organization organized or created for the purpose of extinguishing fires and preventing fire hazards…in response to an alarm for such a fire shall, in the absence of the chief of police, have the power to suppress any tumult or disorder and to command from the inhabitants of the city or town all needful assistance for the suppression of fires and in the preservation of property exposed to fire; the officers above enumerated shall also have authority to go onto and enter any property or premises and to do whatever may reasonably be necessary in the performance of their duties while engaged in the work of extinguishing any fire or performing any duties incidental thereto.