Mark My Words

Is 'Legal Counsel' going to be the newest riding position?


On 2 December 2010 in Union City, Pennsylvania fire destroyed the Cherry Hill Division plant of Ethan Allen Interiors Inc. The building had gone vacant the summer of 2003. Now, almost a year after the fire, the owner has filed a lawsuit against Union City Borough and Union City Volunteer Fire Company for failure to "act with a sense of urgency".

Additonal details from the news story claim that  "There was a predetermined decision by the Union City Fire Department that if the building ever caught on fire, Union City Fire Department would not attempt to extinguish the fire but would instead operate as a 'controlled burn structure fire,'" The headline can lead you to the rest of the story.

First and foremost, before anyone confuses this writing and subject with a call for aggressive interior firefighting, this is not what this article is about. We (me, Dave, Ron and others who contribute) have never willfully or unknowingly advocated for the fire service to operate with recklessness based on tradition and gut-feelings. Instead we have encouraged smart firefighting, thinking about your actions, others' actions and the effects. We have also written on various subjects such as safety, not to bash safety but to ask you to think more about the ideologies you embrace and allow to guide you on the fireground. To spell it out in a grade school manner, we are not saying that the Union City Volunteer Fire Company should have been more aggressive in fighting this fire. Instead, we applaud them for being smart about this structure, recognizing the dangers and creating a plan before the fire to keep its members safe.

"Before the fire" is what I want to stress to you. We all have these buildings in our response areas. Not far from the home office in the 4th Battalion is a well-known, large vacant warehouse. Companies due to this structure know well before the box alarm is struck that this location is "exterior operations-only". However, the problem with this type of pre-planning and that of Union City is that the property owners may not know this.

Should that be a serious concern to you? Maybe not if your riding in the back, but if you are a company or chief officer you better start digging out the general orders and preplans and see if "exterior-only" will land you in court.

Again, we're not calling for departments to abandon safe practices in order to put it all on the line for rescues. We encourage you to operate as directed by your department's policies. We do want you to be aware of a few things that hopefully will lead you and your department to ask "Can it happen to us?"

Many of our various safety initiatives are created for your protection, and in some cases to protect you from yourself. Some of them will cause you to make hard choices, draw a figurative 'line in the sand' at the front door. Your actions may be initially hated by your crew, your department and Captain Anonymous from his basement bedroom. As time passes, those still living may come to realize that they are living because you took a stand. Unfortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Smith don't have the SOP binder readily available on the living room coffee table. All they know is, dial 911 and let the firemen do their thing. In their mind that is save the business and save little Timmy. So, let's say you have the SOP that strictly calls for no entry until 2-out is established or a RIC is on the scene. Let's say that a video catches you on tape telling crews not to go in, even though neighbors know a mother and her children are inside? Let's say that the joint is gone, you know it, everyone knows it and the shop owner pulls up and goes face to face with you on why you're setting up the ladder pipes and not going in.

Fire departments are being sued for many things. This Pennsylvania story reminds me what I said to some when asked about victim survivability profiling (and no, I'm not specifically beating up this issue but proving a point). I had said, and continue to say, that it will only be a matter of time before a fire department shows up and despite reports of someone trapped, a decision will be made not to go in. A court case will ensue and, sadly, may involve that the victim is a minority and the fire companies are mostly white males. Not that I wish this on anyone, firefighter, officer and civilian, but we are in a litigious crazed society.

So, before you run off and use this to say we're calling for a 21st century version of The Charge of The Light Brigade, let me remind you again what we are saying:

1. You can be aggressive and defensive at the same fire. It takes education.

2. Smart, thinking firefighting always trumps putting it all on the line.

3. Risk analysis is not a fancy word for 'stay outside'. It means just that, analyze the risk and take the best course of action.

4. Be prepared to defend, to the fullest measure, all of your fireground actions – with facts, not feelings.

The video below is familiar to many of us in Prince George's County. Many years later this fire is still a sore subject to many because of what the chief officer did. I take no position on it, other than to use it to illustrate a point. Mark my words, the day will come when some department will be sued because they have an SOP that kept crews out while a victim burned inside. Is it right? Maybe. But the point I want you to come away with, can your SOPs defend you in court when this happens to you?

Riding board image courtesy of Wall Shields.

We encourage and support constructive dialogue and debate. View our comment policy.

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  • R. Brennan says:

    I read the article the day it came out and it said they did make an interior attack then had to fall back to the volume of fire. Whole thing sounds to me like there may have been no insurance so someone has to pay, but I could be wrong

    • Bill Carey says:


      You’re right and that makes the situation even worse. If you have exterior-only policy, and go inside, you’ve compounded the problem.

      Bill Carey

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