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Wildland Fire Policy Committee Develops Private Resource Utilization Guidelines

October 1, 2008

IAFC On Scene: October 1, 2008

How does the fire service address the command, control, liability and safety issues associated with private resources?

Over the past few years, insurance companies have seen an increase in their insured property losses due to wildfires. This development has spawned a resurgence of interests from private vendors and the insurance industry to offer what they claim to be an augmentation of traditional public fire protection services. Further evaluations also indicate that the coordination of utility company resources and other private vendors is not well addressed on emergency incidents.

The emerging private fire protection industry is not regulated and doesn’t have any local, state, federal and national standards or enabling legal authority to follow while employing staff or responding to incidents. Many follow National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) guidelines, employ off-duty, retired and experienced firefighters, but the authority having jurisdiction (AHJ) or incident commander (IC) may not know their true abilities and capabilities. Some vendors have already appeared unannounced on fires, violating road closures while trying to sell their services to homeowners during a developing crisis.

The AHJ/IC must be able to account for all resources under his or her command, especially when evacuation orders are given. The AHJ/IC is responsible and now proven to be liable for unsafe acts. So allowing additional resources within a closed hazard area without compatible communications, standardized training, certifications and qualifications, and so forth can compromise safety as well as obstruct ingress and egress of firefighters and the public.

To ensure the protection of the public, the first responders and the private resource operators themselves, it’s incumbent on the fire service (local, state and federal) to clarify the potential impact of these operations and clearly establish command, control, liability and safety parameters under which private resources can operate on incidents.

Private resources may be allowed to operate on an emergency incident within a restricted area only if they are under contract to the AHJ or cooperating fire agency. Private fire brigades may also be integrated within the incident if they have legal authority and jurisdiction to operate, are fully qualified and have a working relationship with neighboring fire agencies. These private resources are held to the same operational and training standards as public fire agencies.

Initial legal review indicates that the AHJ/IC has the authority to restrict resources that may enter a closed area. Private-property owners have the legal right to protect their property if they are on-site during an emergency incident, but once evacuated they aren’t allowed to reenter during the incident when a mandatory evacuation order is in place.

All other private resources utilized should be restricted to non-emergency activities outside of the evacuated or restricted area to ensure safety, command and control and to minimize potential liability issues. Private resources may include utility companies, contractors and laborers providing defensible space, fire protection, etc.

These resources have a role before, during and after the emergency incident, but only within areas deemed safe and if they have the expressed authorization of the AHJ/IC. If they are given evacuation orders, they must comply.

The fire service needs to work with the insurance companies to safely utilize private fire protection resources. As the nation is witnessing, there are more fires and threatened structures today than public and private fire protection forces can respond to. Most of these services advertise they will respond if a fire is within three miles of the insured property.

With that said, it seems that the paramount marketing tool for the insurance companies should be that they endorse property owners adhering year round to fire adaptive community or similar prevention/protection standards, such as FIREWISE or Fire-Safe.

A homeowner will be better off using private resources to create defensible space, retrofit structures to a modern wildland building code and installing fire suppression systems (internal and external) so the structure can survive a wildland fire even if fire protection services cannot arrive prior to the fire. This is particularly important, as most structures are lost in the initial attack phase of wildland fires.

On Tuesday, August 12, 2008, the IAFC board of directors approved the position statement and private resource guidelines proposed by the Wildland Fire Policy Committee. Here is the approved position statement:

The IAFC encourages property owners to protect their homes before they are threatened by wildfires and recommends that property owners follow FIREWISE and Fire Safe Program provisions (defensible space), retrofit their homes to modern wildland building standards and install fixed fire-protection systems (internal and external). These proactive measures have proven themselves highly effective in protecting homes in the wildland urban interface areas. Private fire-protection resources engaged to prepare homes threatened by wildland fires must adhere to evacuation orders if and when issued.

Many homes are destroyed during the early stages of a wildfire when fire resources, including public and private, are limited. Homes and communities located in the wildland urban interface zones should be designed to withstand fire without any fire resources assigned to them.

The following approved guidelines serve as a tool for the AHJ/IC in managing private resources on incidents. (Download the Private Resource Utilization Guidelines in PDF format.) It is important to note these are only guidelines and it remains the individual decision of the AHJ or IC to determine implementation levels:

1. All private resources must respect the decision of the AHJ/IC as they’re the final decision makers in the command, control, liability and safety of the incident.

2. The AHJ/IC and law enforcement has complete authority and legal right to control an emergency incident. Private resources are not first responders and are completely subject to the directions and limits set forth by public-safety agency personnel. The private resource has no claim or stake in unified command and will not have any role in incident command.

3. Private resource vendors shall provide a representative that reports to the incident commander or the liaison officer and can communicate with their resources.

a. This representative shall attend all planning and operational briefings and should be available to represent said entity in regards to qualifications and specific interests to be involved, etc.

b. Private resources are responsible to communicate their location and movements through the private resource representative to the incident commander/liaison officer.

c. Failure to notify the incident commander/liaison officer of the location or movement of private resources could subject them to removal from the incident.

4. Private resources shall check in with the incident commander prior to deployment within an emergency area. ICs need to maintain situational awareness regarding private resources and their compliance with evacuation orders.

5. A message should be included in the incident action plan and briefed at operational briefings regarding known private resources activity on or near the incident.

6. Private resources must be able to monitor incident radio traffic so they maintain situational awareness and know when an area is being evacuated/ restricted. They shall refrain from using incident radio frequencies.

7. Private resources should focus their activities on prefire activities and pretreatment of values-at-risk prior to a road closure order.

a. Once a road closure is ordered, they must evacuate the area so safety is not compromised, and they cannot return until the area is reopened or until they have received IC authorization to reenter.

b. If the private resource does not evacuate the area, the private resource assumes full responsibility for the safety of the resource, personnel and equipment.

c. The AHJ/IC should not be held liable for any loss, injury or death.

8. The IC or local law enforcement officials having jurisdiction must authorize access to any community under evacuation/restriction.

9. Private fire protection resource contractors who are employed on an incident (as a local, state or federal resource) are not allowed to subcontract with the insurance industry or freelance to local homeowners while mobilized on the incident.

10. Private resources not under contract to a public fire agency shall adhere to all local business license provisions.

11. All private fire protection resources should be identified (non-emergency) on the outside of the vehicle, to ensure they do not appear to be a public fire resource. This includes no red lights, sirens or facsimile fire agency decal.

12. During fires where a community meeting is hosted by the AHJ/IC, a clear understanding must be created with the general public as to the role of government in incident command and private resources.