EMERGENCY VEHICLE OPERATIONS ARE YOU INSURING A CAR OR AN EMERGENCY VEHICLE

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1 EMERGENCY VEHICLE OPERATIONS ARE YOU INSURING A CAR OR AN EMERGENCY VEHICLE As often happens we will address an issue in this column and questions will surface based on the previous columns. Such is the case this month. If you recall the last 3 columns we have been addressing apparatus insurance issues (see Firehouse Emergency Vehicle Operations January, February, and March 1999). This month we will take a look at insurance as it relates to the operation of your private car as an emergency vehicle. It is common practice in many states, (New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania to name a few) for volunteer fire chiefs, fire marshals, fire coordinators, EMT's and arson investigators to put emergency lights and a siren on their personal vehicles. In other states (Massachusetts, Michigan, and Wisconsin to name a few), it is common practice for firefighters and emergency medical providers to put emergency lights and a siren on their personal vehicles. For example, in the state of Wisconsin, the Vehicle and Traffic law, under emergency vehicle definitions includes the following: 1

2 Privately owned motor vehicles being used by deputy state fire marshals or by personnel of a full-time or part-time fire department or by members of a volunteer fire department while enroute to a fire or on an emergency call pursuant to orders of their chief or other commanding officer: A privately owed motor vehicle which is: 1) Designated or authorized by an ambulance service or rescue squad chief in writing annually. 2) Used by an emergency medical technician licensed under s or an ambulance driver or first responder authorized by the chief of an ambulance service or rescue squad. The question now becomes who is insuring this vehicle, probably you the owner (not the fire department), and what personal liability have you undertaken by turning your car into an emergency vehicle? First let us take a look at two case studies. Case one involves a volunteer fire chief. The fire department received a call for an MVA, at 2:00AM, the chief responded from his house. The chief jumped into his pickup truck. Then he proceeded to turn on the warning lights and siren. Interesting to note here the warning devices were supplied by the fire department and owned by the village. While responding to the MVA a car pulled out and crashed into the chief's pickup truck. The pickup truck 2

3 suffered $4,600 in damage and the accident was found to be 60% the fault of the civilian driver and 40% the fault of the fire chief. Who pays? The fire chief first confronted the fire department and asked them to cover the 40% because the accident occurred while he was acting in his capacity as fire chief. The department told the fire chief to confront the mayor of the village, as he was acting as an agent of the village. The village told the fire chief we neither own nor insure your car how can we pay. It was decided that because the village owned the lights and siren they would pay the 40% to get the fire chiefs pickup truck repaired and not put the claim through the fire chiefs personal insurance. It was further decided that the village would obtain vehicles owned and insured by the village for the fire chief and his two assistants, this action occurred as a direct result of this dilemma. The second case study involves a volunteer assistant fire chief who was responding to a working fire. The assistant chief hit a patch of black ice ran into a bridge and did $2,000 worth of damage to his van. The assistant chief not wanting to put a claim into his insurance company, as he felt he was acting as an agent of the fire district, went to the district commissioners seeking payment for the $2,000 dollar repair bill. Again the district did not own or insure the assistant chief's vehicle their hands 3

4 were tied. However it was agreed that the district would pay for the repairs out of the districts general fund. But six months later the district under went a state audit. The fire district was admonished by the state, for paying the repairs on a vehicle that was not owned by the district. We have another catch 22. Not being an insurance expert I reached out to the American Insurance Association and here is the information that they provided. The volunteer fire department or municipal motor vehicle insurance policy would cover vehicles owned by the volunteer fire department or by the municipality. Vehicles owned by firefighters would not likely be included under the basic policy. In this case, the firefighter's only coverage is the policy he or she has purchased for him or herself. However, the volunteer fire department or the municipality could purchase additional "non-owned vehicle coverage." This additional protection for the firefighter's vehicle would be over and above the coverage the firefighter has purchased for him or herself. That means that the firefighter's personal auto coverage would pay until the limits of the policy are exhausted. Additional damages owed the injured or their families would be covered by the non-owned vehicle coverage of the fire department or the municipality up to the limits of that policy. If there isn't 4

5 any non-owned vehicle coverage, and damages exceed the firefighter's personal policy, the firefighter could be personally responsible for the damages exceeding his or her policy amount. Because the firefighter may pose more than the ordinary motor vehicle accident risk, he or she should usually carry an amount significantly greater than the minimum coverage required by law. This coverage varies from state to state and is often in the $25,000 per person up to $50,000 bodily injury liability coverage for all victims in any one accident and $10,000 property damage liability. Firefighters with assets to protect should consider buying much more insurance and purchasing a liability "umbrella policy" that will increase limits by one million to five million dollars, depending on how much additional coverage the firefighter feels he or she needs to have. Under New York State Insurance Law no points are to be assigned to accidents which occurred when: any vehicle is being used in the line of duty, if the operator at the time of the accident was (a) a paid or volunteer member of any police or fire department, first aid squad, or any law enforcement, or (b) performing any other function on behalf of the state, any political subdivision thereof, a public authority, public benefit corporation, or any other governmental agency or instrumentality in a 5

6 public emergency. Remember this is New York State insurance law. It would be a good idea to check your states insurance laws as they relate to these issues. It is important to make some recommendations based on the previously stated facts. 1. If your personal vehicle doubles as an emergency vehicle you must compel the governing body (the fire district or the municipality) to purchase non-owned vehicle insurance. If the governing body does not purchase this insurance you and your insurance carrier will be responsible for all of the liability even if you are responding as an emergency vehicle on the municipalities behalf. 2. Be mindful if you own your own business, you could end up losing it in a lawsuit. Remember your personal insurance is first. Once those limits are reached, then the non-owned vehicle insurance kicks in up to those limits. Finally if the liability award exceeds both your personal insurance coverage and the municipal nonowned coverage you will be responsible for whatever shortfall still exists. By having umbrella coverage it will protect any assets that you have. Anyone using his or her personal vehicle as an 6

7 emergency vehicle should have umbrella coverage, especially if you own your own business. 3. Don't turn your business pickup truck or van into an emergency vehicle. It will turn into a mobile billboard that flashes the words sue me. Bill's plumbing and heating on the side of a pickup truck plus warning lights and a siren on top of the same pickup truck equals a disaster potential. I have never met a firefighter that did not like being a firefighter. However the protection of your family must come first. I would like to thank the American Insurance Association for their help in the preparation of this column. By Michael Wilbur April 1999 EMERGENCY VEHICLE OPERATIONS 7

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