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Standard Operating Procedures: The Value of Fire Department Policies

In the world of fire fatality statistics, "nightclub fire" is its own category. One of the most deadly fires of this type in the U.S. took place at the Station nightclub in Warwick, R.I. in 2003.

A band used stage pyrotechnics during a performance that night, which in turn ignited the sound insulation foam installed around the stage, quickly creating a massive fire in a small, crowded space. The fire caused 100 deaths and 230 injuries.

The lawsuits that followed named 97 defendants, and legal settlements amounted to at least $115 million. The list of defendants was diverse, including the tour group itself; the club owners; both the state and the town government; the company that manufactured the foam and the company that sold it; and several others, including a local radio station that promoted the show that night.

Paul A. Doughty, who lives in Rhode Island and investigates arson for the Providence Fire Department, described this case to members of the SC Municipal Insurance Trust and the SC Municipal Insurance and Risk Financing Fund during a fire liability training session on November 28.

Liability works very differently for fire departments than private entities, since laws generally work to protect departments that are following their policies. Even so, the Station nightclub fire illustrated the many groups which could be legally found to have a duty to an injured party and breached that duty.

As Doughty explained, good policies can reduce the likelihood that avoidable problems will happen and create liability. Policies are just like training, supervision and other tools to prevent problems.

"The best way to reduce liability," he said, "is to prevent liability-causing events from happening."

He also noted that policies help departments keep up with changes in law and professional standards, standardize operations and help departments learn from experience.

"Otherwise, you're relying on people with gray hair, and when they leave, the institutional knowledge leaves," Doughty said.

Key high-risk areas for fire departments include structural fire operations, technical rescue, self-contained breathing apparatus, digital images, social media, discipline and professional standards, sexual harassment, hazing and bullying. The majority of lawsuits brought against fire departments are actually employment-related rather than incident-related.

SCMIT provides its members with access to a professionally developed comprehensive manual of fire policies that departments can adopt. Departments can also seek out help from organizations like the SC Firefighters Association, SC State Association of Fire Chiefs and from their fellow fire departments.

For more information on fire policies, contact Venyke Harley, loss control manager, at 803.933.1210 or vharley@masc.sc or Todd Williams, public safety loss control consultant, at 803.354.4764 or twilliams@masc.sc.