Emergency Vehicle Operators Aren't Above the Law

Feb. 1, 2006

The widely publicized indictment of a Michigan firefighter on vehicular homicide charges following his involvement in a fatal traffic accident while responding to an emergency incident provides an important reminder for all who operate emergency vehicles: Our emergency status does not raise us above the law.

This tragic story began last March, near Traverse City, MI, when an apparatus driven by Firefighter Cory Carlton sped through a stop light and struck a sport utility vehicle being driven by Matthew Garrisi. The collision killed Garrisi's wife and their 11-month-old son. Sheriff's investigators said it appeared that the apparatus went through a red light without slowing to check for oncoming traffic.

Five months after the crash, and following the appointment of a special prosecutor, Carlton was charged in August with negligent homicide, which is a misdemeanor charge under Michigan law. A conviction could result in up to two years in prison. Reflecting the language of the statute, the statement of probable cause alleges that Carlton drove "without due regard" for the safety of others, and that he drove at an "immoderate" speed and in a "reckless manner."

Michigan law, in language that is typical of many states, allows the driver of an emergency vehicle, when responding to an emergency call, to run a red light or stop sign. But, this privilege is granted only after "slowing down as may be necessary for safe operation." Likewise, emergency vehicles may exceed speed limits, but only so long as the driver "does not endanger life or property." This language enables prosecutors to file criminal charges against emergency vehicle operators.

In addition to the criminal indictment, Garrisi has filed a civil lawsuit against Carlton's employer, the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department. His lawsuit alleges that Carlton knew (or should have known) that the intersection where the accident occurred would be busy and congested. Further, Garrisi claims that the department is liable because it should have instructed Carlton that emergency lights and a siren are not necessarily effective in warning motorists at intersections.

Even without knowing the outcome of these two legal actions, they illustrate an important principle: There is no complete legal freedom to ignore traffic laws when operating in emergency mode. Firefighters and other emergency vehicle operators are given special legal protections, but not absolute immunity. Cases in other jurisdictions arising out of traffic crashes have led to both criminal convictions and civil judgments against firefighters and fire departments.

We in the fire service are acutely aware of the special lifesaving nature of our mission. And, that mission should, indeed, justify the special privileges granted to emergency vehicles. However, there is no justification for emergency vehicle operators to operate recklessly. Excessive speed and recklessness leads to accidents, injuries and deaths, exactly contradictory to the nature of our mission. Our first responsibility is to arrive safely at the scene of the call.

Chief Ned Sherburne of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Maryland has captured the essence of the matter. "In the past, fast and/or reckless driving has been more common than it should have been, but now it is completely unacceptable," he said. "People who drive at the edge of the safety envelope are not good drivers; they are reckless and need to be treated as such. Everyone has a right to expect drivers to operate their vehicles safely."

Sherburne continued, "One major mistake resulting in a serious collision could have devastating effects on the organization and individuals involved. Being injured, the loss of friendships or the threat of facing a criminal action is not worth getting to a call slightly faster."

Garrisi's civil lawsuit holds a lesson for fire departments, as well as individual firefighters. In essence, it alleges that the Grand Traverse Metro Fire Department did not adequately train Carlton to recognize that emergency lights and sirens may not effectively warn other drivers. It might be argued that this is a thinly veiled attempt to shift the responsibility for the accident from one driver (Garrisi, who should have heard the siren) to another (Carlton, who should not have relied on the siren). That is a matter for a judge, jury or both to decide.

Regardless of how this claim is resolved, it carries with it an important lesson for fire departments. Departmental policies must be practical, relevant and effective, and must emphasize that safe driving is of paramount importance.

Steve Blackistone, a Firehouse contributing editor, is an attorney and a member of the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad in Montgomery County, MD.

Voice Your Opinion!

To join the conversation, and become an exclusive member of Firehouse, create an account today!