Shane Kelly stopped to help. That he was off duty didn’t matter—fire departments in his state allowed their personnel, even off the job, to stop and render aid if they encountered an emergency.
Kelly had come upon an accident scene on the Ronald Reagan Turnpike near Wildwood, FL, on June 8, 2002. A Toyota pickup had overturned in the heavy rain and lay on the median, its driver inside. The 26-year-old Oviedo Fire Rescue firefighter was one of six motorists—including two firefighters, an EMT and a physician—who pulled over to assist.
They were attempting to aid the trapped occupant as the tractor trailer approached. With traffic backed up on the wet highway, the semi’s driver swerved to avoid a slower-moving 18-wheeler in the No. 1 lane. Veering onto the median, the semi slammed into the Good Samaritans and the overturned pickup. Kelly and Orlando physician Donald Diedel were killed.
A crash report from the Florida Highway Patrol documented faulty windshield wipers on the semi. Kelly’s death was officially attributed to multiple blunt force injuries with compound fractures of the skull.
Where Duty Ends
Shane Kelly’s was ruled a line-of-duty death, but it might not have been everywhere. Florida has a statewide mutual-aid compact, signed by representatives of all its counties and cities, allowing employees of government fire and EMS agencies to respond to any emergency they encounter. By longstanding state law, the performance by such personnel of their regular professional duties, even after hours or in other jurisdictions, is considered within the normal scope of their employment.
At the time of Kelly’s death, though, there was some wiggle room for local jurisdictions to contest that. Basically, such jurisdictions could themselves define what their providers’ so-called regular duties were, potentially leaving an out in cases where it could be argued that a provider was acting outside the scope of those official duties.
This was not an out sought by Oviedo Fire Rescue, which deemed Kelly’s death line-of-duty from the outset. And after the incident, state policy was changed so that all such injuries and deaths among employees of government fire and EMS agencies in Florida are now considered to be in the line of duty. That’s a nice legacy for a young firefighter who gave his life. But it’s only one aspect to the complicated issue of off-duty responses.
“If Not Them, Then Who?”
It seems natural to allow, even encourage, selfless public servants with specific training and skills to apply them to help folks in need. They’re able, they’re usually willing, and they’re almost always ready.
“Firefighters and EMS personnel are probably the first people who will stop at a traffic collision to do something other than ogle,” says Walt Malo, who oversees firefighter safety for the Florida State Fire Marshal’s office. “They’re trained to handle this kind of emergency. And beyond that, these are people who like to help people—that’s why they’re in the profession. They’re going to do what they can when the need arises. If not them, then who?”
But should they? What happens when they get hurt or killed? Are they covered? Are they liable if they screw up?
“It’s a complicated issue,” says Rick Patrick, MS, FF, EMT-P, director of EMS programs and services for York, PA-based emergency-services insurer/consultant VFIS. “Sure, people should stop and render care. But that’s just a Good Samaritan issue. It’s not necessarily more of a responsibility for a trained provider. The states vary on requiring fire and EMS providers to stop—some do, some don’t, and it can be a very controversial subject.”
Know the Rules
The first aspect to this discussion is what you’re legally allowed to do. Does your state allow you to stop and help when you’re not on the job? Does your department? If the answers are yes, are there specific requirements as to when and how?