A frequent term used in the fire service is a firehouse lawyer. Generally, these are individuals with a lot of opinions but lacking in a law degree. On the other hand, there are many individuals in the fire service who have sought a law degree and are functioning attorneys. The purpose of this column is to draw a distinction between the pejorative term and that of a real attorney. We need to know the difference. Secondarily, there are certain legal concepts that every fire officer should be aware of because they affect day-to-day interactions in the fire station.
Practicing attorneys have an education in the basic tenets of the law. They are bound by a set of ground rules that determine the process used to resolve conflict using litigation. A firehouse lawyer may have a great deal of experience in expressing opinion but may or may not possess the skillset to use the ground rules effectively.
Even a firehouse lawyer must understand the basic ground rules of the legal system and must have learned to use that information in coping with change in the fire service.
Rules of engagement (ROE): Rules or directives to an organization (including individuals) that define the circumstances, conditions, degree, and way the use of force, or actions which might be construed as provocative, may be applied.
Standard of care: Watchfulness, attention, caution, and prudence that a reasonable person in the circumstances would exercise. If a person’s actions do not meet this standard of care then his acts fail to meet the duty of care that all people have toward others. Failure to meet the standard is negligence, and any resulting damages may be claimed in a lawsuit by the injured party. The problem is that the “standard” is often a subjective issue.
Benign neglect: A policy or attitude of ignoring a situation instead of assuming responsibility for improving it.
Liability: A term that describes the condition of being actually or potentially subject to a legal obligation.
Primary liability: An obligation for which a person is directly responsible; it is distinguished from secondary liability, which is the responsibility of another if the party directly responsible fails or refuses to satisfy his obligation.
Joint and several liability: Joint liability is an obligation for which more than one person is responsible. Joint and several liability refers to the status of those who are responsible together as one unit as well as individually for their conduct. The person who has been harmed can institute a lawsuit and recover from any or all the wrongdoers but cannot receive double compensation.
Contingent liability: Liabilities that may be incurred by an entity depending on the outcome of a future event, such as a court case.
Negligence: A failure to exercise the care that a reasonably prudent person would exercise in like circumstances.
Act and omissions: An omission is a failure to act; it generally attacks different legal consequences from positive contact. In the criminal law, an omission will constitute an action or conduct that is a constitute element of a crime, as opposed to the mental state of the accused, and give rise to liability only when the law imposes a duty to act.
Probable cause: Apparent facts discovered through logical inquiry that would lead a reasonably intelligent and prudent person to believe that an accused person has committed a crime, thereby warranting his prosecution, or that a cause of action has accrued, justifying a civil lawsuit.
Due process: Legal fairness, legal safeguards, protection against deprivations, protection guarantees, protection of deprivation of accepted legal principle—fundamental fairness.
Which term from the above list can create the most problems for you as a fire officer? The answer may be found in any one of them. This is where lawsuits come from in the fire service. When individuals act contradictory to these definitions, lawsuits can emerge. While it is not anticipated that the average person is going to generate a lawsuit, it is the role of the fire officer that your behavior should be exemplary and eliminate causes for litigation. Unnecessary lawsuits are an expense to an organization that disrupts the organizations achievement of adequate funding.
The better company officers understand these basic legal terms and base their behavior on appropriate legal action, the less likely litigation will emerge from the fire station. To reuse Benjamin Franklin’s adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree in vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is president of Fireforceone, a consulting firm in California.