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January 28, 2011

Ind. bill helps protect responders from lawsuits

By Kevin Allen
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — Emergency responders along Indiana's border areas often cross state lines to aid their counterparts in Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Kentucky.

And the same goes for responders from those neighboring states. For example, Niles city and Niles Township firefighters helped extinguish a blaze Tuesday at Castle Point Apartments in South Bend.

The problem with this neighborly assistance is that responders are exposing themselves to potential lawsuits.

George Thompson, general counsel for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, said some first responders such as emergency medical technicians are certified in the state where they are based but not in neighboring states where they might have to work from time to time.

"We are currently engaging in mutual aid across state lines," Thompson said, "but whenever we do so we're placing those individuals in those fire departments, police departments and ambulance services at some kind of risk of legal liability."

Indiana Sen. Joe Zakas, R-Granger, has proposed a legislative fix in the General Assembly.

He introduced Senate Bill 6, which would authorize local governments to enter into agreements with units in neighboring states to offer mutual aid during emergencies. It also recognizes certain out-of-state certifications and provides immunity from civil liability for people acting under the agreements.

Sen. Jim Arnold, D-LaPorte, is the bill's co-author.

"There's been a renewed appreciation for first responders, especially since 9/11," Zakas said. "Our firefighters and police officers and other first responders put their lives on the line every day to protect us."

The Senate Committee on Local Government voted unanimously Wednesday to forward S.B. 6 to the full Senate.

Timm Schabbel, chief of the Clay Fire Territory, was in the Statehouse to voice support for the bill.

He said Clay firefighters respond to emergencies in Michigan at least once per month.

"This is a really important piece of legislation for us," he said.

Schabbel said first responders in all of the Great Lakes states as well as Iowa and Missouri are working to pass similar measures as part of the Mid-America Mutual Aid Consortium. He said S.B. 6 could be a model for others to follow.

"I think this is the first step of what will be a national program," he said.

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