Firefighters outfit themselves with special personal protective equipment (PPE) before they respond to the scene of a fire. Fire-retardant bodysuits, face masks that connect to oxygen tanks and personal alert safety systems (PASS) that signal a firefighter’s location if he becomes trapped in a building are examples of PPE that firefighters routinely wear on firefighting missions.
In most cases, the equipment works as it should, but when it fails to operate as expected, it can cause firefighters to experience injuries for which the equipment manufacturer is legally liable. This is what happened to Scott Technologies in February 2015, after New York firefighter Mitch Dryer’s PASS system that the company manufactured failed to indicate his location when he became trapped in a burning bowling alley.
As a result of the system’s malfunction, a jury awarded Dryer a $10.6 million legal settlement against the manufacturer. Scott was trapped in the building when its roof partially collapsed. After his PASS system failed to sound and indicate his location to fellow firefighters, he remained trapped for 26 minutes and sustained burn injuries that resulted in the loss of his right arm.
A Cautionary Story for Fire Departments
Because it provided him with the right types of PPE, Dryer’s employer, Oneida Fire Department, was not included in the lawsuit. Instead, the equipment manufacturer was held legally liable because one of its technologies failed to operate normally. However, there have also been cases in which fire departments have been sued for not providing a sufficient level of PPE.
According to Battalion Chief Henry Costo, a 37-year veteran with the Philadelphia Fire Department and chairman of the safety committee for the International Association of Firefighters Local 22, fire departments should implement a three-step process for evaluating PPE in order to prevent costly litigation associated with improper provision of personal protective equipment.
- Examine product elements
- Conduct a wear test
- Perform a final evaluation
Fire departments that implement Chief Costo’s process for evaluating PPE achieve two corollary objectives: They ensure that firefighters are provided with a sufficient level of PPE, which in turn protects the departments from the liability of providing an insufficient level of PPE. As Scott Technologies recently discovered, being held legally liable in PPE cases can be costly, to say the least.
The proper assessment of PPE is one of the most important legal considerations for fire and emergency services organizations. By performing Chief Costo’s three-step process for evaluating PPE equipment, fire departments are better able to supply firefighters with a sufficient level of PPE. If the PPE happens to malfunction, the manufacturer and not the departments is typically held liable.
If you are an aspiring firefighter or a fire department leader who needs to brush up on your knowledge of legal considerations for fire and emergency services -- including fire service liability issues -- read through the chapters of Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, 2nd Ed. We encourage you to order your copy of this concise educational resource from Firebooks today.