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Firefighters authorized to regulate and direct traffic at the scene of a fire or accident

      The New York Court of Appeals in People v. Loren held that Vehicle and Traffic Law (VTL) § 1102 permits a fire chief to empower subordinate firefighters to regulate and direct traffic at the scene of a fire or accident.

      On December 17, 2003, the Village of Poland Volunteer Fire Department responded to an automobile accident. The fire chief ordered two firefighters to close the road. The two firefighters set up a roadblock using flares and one of the firefighter’s personal vehicle, with its blue emergency lights turned on. One of the firefighters was dressed in full firefighter’s "turn out" gear, and the other wore a green fluorescent vest and was holding an orange highway flag. The defendant drove around a roadblock, ignoring the firefighters’ order to stop. The firefighters called the State Police who subsequently went to the defendant’s residence and issued him a ticket for violating VTL § 1102. VTL § 1102 states that "no person shall fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any police officer or flagperson or other person duly empowered to regulate traffic." The defendant argued before the Village Court that he did not violate VTL § 1102 because volunteer firefighters are not empowered to regulate traffic. The Village Court found that the defendant violated VTL § 1102 based on the understanding that a fire chief has authority to direct traffic at the scene of an emergency and can delegate this responsibility to subordinates. The County Court affirmed the decision of the Village Court and the Court of Appeals subsequently affirmed.

      The issue in the Loren case was whether volunteer firefighters are "persons duly empowered to regulate traffic" under VTL § 1102. The Court of Appeals held that volunteer firefighters may direct traffic at fire scenes and accidents when delegated such authority by the fire chief pursuant to VTL § 1602. Section 1602(b) states that:

 [i]n the event of a fire or other emergency or to expedite traffic or to safeguard pedestrians or property: any police officer or other person empowered to regulate traffic at the scene may, to the extent authorized by local law . . . direct traffic as conditions may require.

      The Court acknowledged that a fire chief’s responsibility to coordinate the fire department’s response to an emergency includes: protecting the public while keeping the public from obstructing the fire department’s mission.

      The Court determined that the two volunteer firefighters were "duly empowered to regulate traffic" under VTL § 1102 because they were acting under instructions from the fire chief. The Court reasoned that fire chiefs may delegate their VTL § 1602 authority to regulate to their subordinates. A fire chief has exclusive control over the members of the fire department at all fires, inspections, reviews and other occasions when the fire department is on duty or parade. Town Law § 176-a; Village Law § 10-1018. The Court interpreted this control as authorizing "firefighters to undertake tasks critical to public safety, such as diverting traffic away from the scene of a fire or dangerous accident." People v. Loren, 4 N.Y.3d at 411 (2005).

      Historically, fire police are used by fire departments to regulate and direct traffic at the scene of a fire or accident.1 Inf. Op. A.G. 134 (1966); Op. Compt. 61-328. The Loren case expands a fire department’s ability to regulate and direct traffic by holding that duly empowered firefighters, who are not fire police, can regulate and direct traffic at the scene of a fire or accident. A fire department’s authority and responsibility is tied to firemanic functions and its members, including fire police, are limited to responding to a fire or accident when directed by the fire chief or fire department. Op. Compt. 79-853; Inf. Op. A.G. 103 (1975). The Court’s finding that firefighters can regulate traffic at the direction of the fire chief, without needing fire police designation, enhances a firefighter’s ability to assist at the scene of an accident to provide for public safety. The Attorney General, in a 1975 opinion, stated that "members of the [fire police] squad do not have the exclusive authority to direct traffic, and any member of the volunteer fire department may, direct traffic to assist in controlling and extinguishing a fire." Inf. Op. A.G. 103 (1975).

      This case enables fire chiefs to delegate authority to firefighters to control traffic at a fire,
accident or other emergency. Motorists who refuse to obey the orders of a firefighter delegated with the authority to control traffic at a fire, accident or other emergency may find themselves confronted with a VTL § 1102 violation.

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1Under General Municipal Law § 209-c, fire police squads are created within a volunteer fire department and when exercising their duties and responsibilities have the powers and status of peace officers. See Criminal Procedure Law § 2.10(41). Fire police squads have the same authority as police officers to regulate traffic at the scene of a fire or other emergency under VTL § 1602. VTL § 132 defines police officer to include peace officers designated pursuant to Article 2 of the Criminal Procedure Law. Criminal Procedure Law § 2.10(41) designates members of fire police squads as peace officers.