Minnesota Cities Magazine

Letter of the Law: Fire Departments—Don’t Overlook These Laws

By Rachel Carlson

Nothing says hometown more than a shiny fire truck in the city parade on a hot summer day. But running a fire department is more than just flags and parades.

Fire departments are subject to a host of laws and regulations that can create liability. Here are some laws Firefightersthat you might not worry about when you consider your fire department. However, the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust has experienced claims in all of these areas.

Sexual harassment laws
Both state and federal laws offer men and women protections from being harassed based on their sexual characteristics or gender. Even though most fire departments are staffed by volunteers or paid on-call volunteers—there are no exceptions to the laws for them. The courts will treat sexual harassment in the fire hall the same as sexual harassment in an office or store. This means fire department staff should be included in city-sponsored sexual harassment prevention training.

An effective sexual harassment prevention policy includes the legal definition of sexual harassment and examples of what such behavior might look like in the workplace. It should clearly state the responsibilities of employees and supervisors in cases of possible sexual harassment.

Cities should designate more than one person to whom each employee can report sexual harassment incidents. They should also provide guidelines for handling and resolving complaints. Finally, everyone should be made aware that retaliation following a report of sexual harassment is illegal.

Human rights and anti-discrimination laws
The Minnesota Human Rights Act (MHRA) builds on the federal civil rights laws, which also apply to fire departments. The MHRA makes it an unfair employment practice for an employer to discharge or discriminate against a person with respect to employment because of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, gender, marital status, status with regard to public assistance, membership or activity in a local commission, disability, sexual orientation, or age.

Most people these days agree that discrimination isn’t acceptable. But fire departments who still vote to elect new members or officers (such as a chief or medical officer) may be vulnerable to charges of discrimination (even if they wouldn’t actually dream of discriminating against someone). In addition, they risk violating veterans preference laws, which can lead to significant penalties.

When a charge of discrimination is brought against an employer, the employer can defend itself by demonstrating that its employment practices were fair, objective, and neutral. The record of the objective application, interview, and promotion process can be shown to the court.

In contrast, if a fire department is using a vote to hire and promote members, it does not have a neutral record to show the court. A vote tally alone will not demonstrate to the court a fair and neutral process. Therefore, the League of Minnesota Cities (LMC) discourages the use of voting for hiring and promotions.

Data practice laws
The Minnesota Government Data Practices Act (MGDPA) controls how government data is collected, created, stored, used, and released. Most city clerks know the MGDPA requirements so well they could recite them in their sleep. Does your fire chief have the same level of awareness?

This is important because the MGDPA applies equally to the clerk and chief. The fire chief likely has a trove of employment data (hiring information, leave requests, discipline matters, and even medical information) about the members of his or her department. This data is considered personnel data and is most often classified as private or non-public. In addition, the fire department likely has information about members of the public, particularly if the department provides rescue and emergency response.

It is also essential for fire departments to understand that the MGDPA applies to video and digital images. For example, the MGDPA applies equally to a photo of an accident scene and the written report about the incident. And it applies whether or not the image is taken with a city-owned device. Civil and criminal penalties can apply to the inappropriate release of data under the MGDPA.

Learn more about fire department issues in the LMC information memo at www.lmc.org/firedept.

Rachel Carlson is loss control manager with the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust. Contact: rcarlson@lmc.org or (651) 281-1210.

Read the July-August 2014 issue of Minnesota Cities Magazine

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