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Today’s fire departments are held increasingly liable by the people they serve and the personnel they lead. Almost every fire department activity subjects personnel, the department and the municipality to potential liability and the risk of a lawsuit. Any department member can be held liable for nonfeasance (failing to perform an act for which he was qualified); malfeasance (performing an act for which he was not qualified); or misfeasance (improperly performing an act for which he was qualified).
Legal liability is no different from personal liability. It means that each of us is responsible and liable for our actions. As long as you perform your duties within reasonable, basic guidelines or established standards, and you document what, where, when and how you did it, you are laying the groundwork to cover yourself legally.
Negligence is the failure to exercise the care a prudent person would usually exercise. To prove negligence, the injured party must show that the defendant owed a duty of care to the public and to the injured party, and that injury was caused by the defendant’s failure to perform that duty with required care and skill. In a civil lawsuit involving negligence, the action can be brought even if the defendant was acting in good faith and in the best interest of the plaintiff. Likewise, you or any member of your department can be sued for negligence even if you were doing your best to help the victim.
Once a duty of care has been established, it must be determined whether the defendant failed to conform to the standard of care imposed by the law of negligence. When an employee (fire department member) causes damage through negligence in the course of carrying out the employer’s business, the employer also may be liable for those damages. If an employee is acting beyond the instructions or directions of the employer, the employee is solely liable for damages.
Who owns “the monkey”?
Those involved in human resource development often use the word “monkey” to refer to an unresolved problem or issue. The monkey sits on the back of the person with the problem. Rural firefighters need to study what I like to call “monkey management.”
It is characteristic of human nature to want to help our fellow man. In fact, to many it’s a noble pursuit. But we must take care regarding monkeys, as some people are quite skilled at manipulating them from their own backs to the backs of others.
Some unlucky souls may unwittingly spend their days collecting the monkeys of others. I like to call them “monkey grabbers.” Monkey grabbers spend their time searching for the elusive monkey, and when they find it, they grab it from whoever is holding it. This, of course, prevents them from dealing with their own monkeys. Because of our desire to help people, we are all guilty of this to some extent.
Then of course, there are the “monkey shufflers,” who are always on the lookout for someone to whom they can shuffle their problem. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another, but some have made an art of it.
Fire departments are highly skilled and conditioned monkey-grabbing organizations. Community members make monkeys for your department by creating situations they cannot control and then calling you for help. Unfortunately, an unacceptable number of firefighters are injured or killed every year, many in vacant or abandoned structures, because they have been conditioned to be fearless monkey grabbers.
Here’s an unfortunate monkey shuffling/grabbing scenario:
1. A homeowner accidentally sets fire to his house.
2. He calls your department in a panic, essentially saying, “Come quickly and get this monkey.”
3. The tones hit, the house siren bellows and your firefighters race to get the monkey.
4. On the way to the fire, your pumper broadsides a car at an intersection, throwing unbelted firefighters about the vehicle and severely injuring the pregnant woman who is driving the car.
5. The house burns down, two firefighters are crippled for life and the woman’s unborn child dies.
You and your department members not only feel terrible about what has happened, but suddenly learn a lot about monkey ownership. You were trying to help, but are punished because you did not safeguard your firefighters and the public. Even though you explain that this accident was a stroke of bad luck, the lawsuits start rolling in. The homeowner’s insurance company sues you and your department because you failed to respond promptly. The accident is of little consequence to them. The families of the crippled firefighters sue you because you permitted them to ride without seatbelts. The pregnant woman sues you, the pumper driver and the fire department for failing to stop at the intersection.