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Duty to Act: Legal Obligations vs. Community Expectations

By Anthony S. Mangeri, Sr., Faculty Member, Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University

Over the years, there have been several stories of public safety personnel, on and off duty, failing to meet the response expectations of their community. A recent incident in the District of Columbia involving the death of a man who collapsed near a fire station and not receive immediate aid, made it even more unclear if emergency responders have a legal duty to act versus an expectation by the community to aid those who seek help.

The term Duty to Act is a legal term that defines an individual or organization’s legal requirement to take action to prevent harm to a person or the community as a whole.

Events like the D.C. incident stirs debate about who has a legal duty to act and what that obligation actually means. More importantly, there can be a conflict between the legal obligation to respond and the community’s expectation of response.

Firefighters and emergency responders are hired/selected, trained, and funded by the community to respond to the public’s request for assistance in time of emergency. Even a department’s mission statement may establish a legal duty or relationship between the fire or rescue department and the community.

Legal Reality on Duty to Act

In 1981, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals ruled in Warren vs. District of Columbia (444 A.2d. 1, D.C. Ct. of Ap., 1981). The Court 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 found that very few states actually have laws that mandate a duty to act. Such statutes, which require an individual to respond to another being harmed, are relatively new.

Duty to Act laws often emerges from cases of individuals standing by while others are injured. Vermont was one of the first states to pass a Duty to Act legislation and has one of the most clear and specific statutes. 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 as listed above shall not be liable for civil damages unless his acts constitute gross negligence or unless he will receive, or expects to receive, remuneration.

Minnesota has very similar legislation to Vermont. Each state has embedded Duty to Act into the state’s Good Samaritan statutes.

These statutes seem to be very clear. However, it will be up to a court to determine the details and application of the statute based on the situation. There have been numerous “duty to act/failure to act” cases that have reached our courts. Many times, courts have 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.

The Public’s Expectations of Duty to Act

Perhaps more importantly, is the public’s expectation of how firefighters, emergency medical services, and other emergency professionals respond to requests for help.

What are the expectations of your community leaders and the public as a whole?

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 to appear thoughtless and uncaring. This impact to the reputation of the organization can result in reduced funding and even community outcry for changes in leadership. Jurisdictions must research how their state statutes define a responder’s duty to act both on and off duty.

The Importance of Comprehensive SOPs/SOGs

In today’s emergency service environment, it just makes sense to develop and train personnel to maintain a standard of performance. Understanding both the requirements of statute and your community’s expectation will provide core information to develop a standard operating procedure (SOP) or standard operating guideline (SOG) that defines the expectations for responders. Such SOPs/SOGs must provide direction as well as address reasonable expectations for personnel both on and off duty.

Having comprehensive SOPs/SOGs that include not just operational protocols but also administrative and standards of conduct are essential to maintaining proper regiment and discipline. These guidance documents should reduce inconsistency in performance.

It is never enough to have a written SOP/SOG in place. A properly prepared SOP/SOG will create opportunities for training. Instructors need to incorporate SOPs/SOGs into training in order to highlight the procedures and expectations for performance. Each member of the department must be trained and the policy must be enforced in order for the department to be effective. In addition, such policies must be consistent with standard departmental practices and common principles 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 that personnel are adequately trained on will assure consistent performance that meets both community expectations and statutory requirements.

ProtestsAbout the Author: Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, CPM, CEM, has more than 25 years of experience in emergency management and public safety service. Currently, he is the Manager of Strategic Relations for Fire Services and Emergency Services and also a faculty member at American Military University and American Public University. He has been a volunteer firefighter and EMT for more than 25 years, earning the rank of Assistant Chief-Safety Officer. Mangeri earned a Master of Public Administration from Rutgers University and is a Certified Public Manager. He also serves on the Fire & Life Safety Council of the ASIS International.

Leischen Kranick is a Managing Editor at AMU Edge. She has 15 years of experience writing articles and producing podcasts on topics relevant to law enforcement, fire services, emergency management, private security, and national security.

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