Recent fire events in Ceres have shown a disturbing trend of persons driving and walking through fire scenes in defiance of posted barriers and verbal orders given by emergency personnel. It is a problem that has serious implications for our ability to fight fires and to manage other emergency scenes, so this message in itself has an emergency nature to it. I suspect that these emergency scene incursions are probably happening in other jurisdictions as well.
Driving through emergency scenes without express permission from authorized emergency services personnel, including uniformed volunteers and plainclothes personnel wearing proper identification, is a violation of law. These violations are subject to citation, arrest or both. The problem, as if it is not obvious, is that people who enter emergency zones may easily become victims themselves and add to the problems of overall scene management. One of the more common dangerous and destructive actions is when motorists fail to heed barricades, cones, and the like, and end up driving over fire hoses. Fire hoses, especially the large diameter ones, are very expensive to replace or repair. A car driving over a charged fire house can cause it to burst. For the firefighters depending on that water supply, a loss of water pressure can quickly become a matter of life and death for them and any victims they may be trying to save. And if the careless actions of a motorist lead to injuries or deaths that could have been avoided, the liability can quickly move into the realm of criminal homicide and civil lawsuits. It is simply a serious violation to enter an area where only authorized personnel are present (crime scene, fire scene, or other emergency).
It is a violation of the California Vehicle Code section 21707 to drive within 300 feet of an emergency scene - which means that drivers and vehicles not authorized to be in the area could receive a citation. It is also a violation of the California Vehicle Code section 21708 to drive over fire hoses. It is a violation of California Penal Code section 409.5 and a misdemeanor to willfully and knowingly enter the immediate area surrounding any emergency field command post or closed area after receiving notice to evacuate or leave.
We have been experiencing situations when persons have to be told multiple times to obey an order to stay out of an emergency scene. In those instances, the violation rises from a simple infraction to interfering with a police officer's duties. If that happens, I have instructed Ceres personnel to take the violator into custody and charge them with Penal Code Section 148, which has more serious consequences than an infraction violation.
After being in the public safety service for multiple decades, I have accepted the fact that people cannot help themselves and seem to be drawn like magnets to emergency scenes to check out the action. Even things as uninteresting as a tow truck alongside a highway seem to cause many motorists to slow down and gawk at what is going on. It is unfortunate that some people are so drawn to the misery of others that they ignore the safety of victims and emergency responders.
Another serious problem results from people approaching the fire scene command post to ask questions, listen, and watch the fire scene activities. The fire scene commander is in a critical position, responsible for command and coordination of the entire incident. That person is also responsible for the safety and welfare of the firefighters and people whose homes are affected by the fire, so it is critical not to distract that person or their support personnel.
I have to believe that the kind of behavior we have lately been seeing at our various emergency scenes is primarily the result of people being ignorant and not knowing that their actions are illegal and harmful. Many others, however, seem to do so out of a lack of respect for other people, a total absence of courtesy, and absolute disregard for the public safety workers who deal with these emergencies, and the people and property they are trying to protect.
It is my hope that the people who do not know they were doing wrong can learn from this and will avoid the same mistakes in the future. For the willful violators, be advised that we have to be firm with our enforcement of the laws applicable to emergency scene management, as there is too much at stake. Keep in mind that the next emergency could well be yours and that you would not want onlookers and motorists creating harmful interference. Do what is right; stay out and away from emergency scenes.