There have been several stories of public safety personnel, on and off duty, failing to meet the response expectations of their community. The incident in the District of Columbia involving a 77-year old man who died outside a fire station brought into focus emergency responders’ legal duty to act versus expectations by the communities we serve to aid those who ask for help.
The term duty to act is a legal term that defines an individual’s or organizations legal requirement to take action to prevent harm to a person or the community as a whole. The debate arises as to who has a legal duty to act and what does that obligation actually mean. More importantly, there can be a conflict between the legal obligation to respond and the community’s expectations.
Firefighters and emergency responders are hired, trained, and funded by the community to respond to the public’s request for assistance in a time of emergency. A department’s mission statement may establish a legal duty or relationship between the fire or rescue department and the community.
However, in a 1981 District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruling in Warren v. District of Columbia (444 A.2d. 1, D.C. Ct. of Ap., 1981), the Court’s ruling stated that it is a “fundamental principle of American law that a government and its agents are under no general duty to provide public services, such as police protection, to any individual.”
A quick review of state statutes shows that few states have laws that mandate a duty to act. Statutes that require an individual to respond to another who is harmed are relatively new. These laws emerged from cases of individuals standing by while others are injured. Vermont was one of the first to pass duty to act legislation and it’s one of the most clear and specific. Vermont statute 519(a) states:
A person who knows that another is exposed to grave physical harm shall, to the extent that the same can be rendered without danger or peril to himself or without interference with important duties owed to others, give reasonable assistance to the exposed person unless that assistance or care is being provided by others.
The law goes on to say that a person who provides reasonable assistance shall not be liable of any civil damages unless his acts constitute gross negligence or unless he will receive or expects to receive remuneration. Minnesota has similar legislation; both have embedded duty to act into their Good Samaritan statutes.
These statutes are quite clear. However, it is up to a court to determine the details and application of the statute to any situation. There have been numerous “duty to act/failure to act” cases; courts have often ruled that there is no duty to act unless a duty is created by statute or by actions of the agency or personnel, which creates a duty.
There are few simple answers, and many of the issues are dependent on the laws of your state and the standards within your community. There appears to be neither national standards nor laws that would require public safety professionals to respond. However, once engaged, there are many requirements to render care.
Regardless of the law, there most likely will be a community expectation to render care when a person is in need. Moreover, nothing can destroy confidence in an emergency service organization more than it appearing to be thoughtless or uncaring. The impact to the reputation of the organization can result in reduced funding and even calls for changes in leadership. Jurisdictions must research how their state statutes define a responder’s duty to act—both on and off duty.
In today’s emergency service environment, it makes sense to develop and train personnel and to maintain a standard of performance. Understanding both the requirements of the law and your community’s expectation will provide core information to develop a standard operating procedure or guideline that will define the expectations for responders. Such SOPs/SOGs should provide direction and address reasonable expectations both on and off duty.
Having comprehensive SOPs/SOGs that include operational and administrative protocols and standards of conduct are essential to maintaining proper regiment and discipline. These guidance documents should reduce inconsistency in performance.
A properly prepared SOP/SOG will also create opportunities for training to highlight the procedures and expectations for performance. Each member of the department must be trained and the policy enforced to be effective. In addition, such policies must be in compliance with standard department practices and common principals of the emergency service profession as a whole.
You may think certain behaviors are common sense, and they may be. Nevertheless, having clear and concise guidance for personnel and ensuring they are adequately trained will assure consistent performance that meets the community expectations and statutory requirements.
By Anthony Mangeri, faculty member, Emergency and Disaster Management Program at American Military University