By Adam K. Thiel
I have to admit that I did a double-take when I first saw the title of this story on FireRescue1.
My sense is that we don’t have all the facts in this matter, but it still raises some interesting general questions.
I’m sure there are places in the U.S. where “ordinary” firefighters (as opposed to public safety officers or arson investigators with law enforcement powers) have the legal authorities necessary to enforce moving violations such as the one that allegedly occurred in this particular case. However, it’s not something I’ve heard of before.
I know plenty of jurisdictions where regular firefighters can enforce certain traffic laws like fire lane parking violations, blocked fire hydrants, etc. And I’ve worked in several places where sworn fire marshals with full police powers contributed to the work of their law enforcement colleagues in many different ways, including traffic enforcement.
The other thing I know, from talking to law enforcement folks and from my own experiences alongside them on the roadway, is that traffic stops can be extremely dangerous for even the highly trained and experienced state troopers, police officers, and deputy sheriffs who make them 24/7/365.
Frankly, I have a lot of respect for those men and women, and I really wouldn’t want to do their job without extensive training, relevant experience, body armor, a service weapon, a portable radio, and other officers responding as backup!
I can certainly envision a scenario where a firefighter witnesses dangerous civilian driving behavior that presents an imminent threat to others; in fact, over the years I’ve called (using a mobile radio or phone) law enforcement multiple times for this type of situation, doing my best to provide a vehicle description while keeping myself from becoming part of the problem.
So, while it definitely seems important to ask if firefighters in a particular jurisdiction have the legal authorities to enforce specific traffic laws, perhaps more important is asking if it’s a good idea for them to do so, and when?
What do you think?
About the author
With more than two decades in the field, Chief Adam K. Thiel — FireRescue1’s editorial advisor — is an active fire chief in the National Capital Region and a former state fire director for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Chief Thiel’s operational experience includes serving with distinction in four states as a chief officer, incident commander, company officer, hazardous materials team leader, paramedic, technical rescuer, structural/wildland firefighter and rescue diver. He also directly participated in response and recovery efforts for several major disasters including the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Tropical Storm Gaston and Hurricane Isabel.