AAC releases guidebook on fire department law
By Arik Cruz, AAC Law Clerk
Without a doubt, one of the most common issues that members of Association of Arkansas Counties’ legal counsel are called upon to address is the topic of fire departments. During any given week, one can expect to field numerous questions related to the organization and operation of such entities. This comes as no surprise given that, according to data from the Arkansas Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Office and the Arkansas Department of Emergency Management (ADEM), there are approximately 976 fire departments across the state of Arkansas.
Compounding the issue is the fact that what are referred to colloquially as “fire departments” may be organized under six distinct areas of the Arkansas Code. Indeed, departments may be incorporated as private nonprofit corporations; fire protection districts; suburban fire improvement districts; county created volunteer or regular fire departments; county created subordinate service districts; or municipal fire departments.
More often than not, questions come from our local elected officials, especially the county judges, clerks, and collectors, who are so actively involved in the inception and continued operation of many of our state’s fire departments. The concerns of these officials are wide-ranging — from how to levy and reevaluate fire dues or assessments in a more efficient manner to figuring out how to get them on the tax rolls for collection. May the county constitutionally allocate funds to a nonprofit entity? How might the county handle a fire department that has gone rogue and subsequently fails to respond adequately to calls? The number of possible questions and permutations are quite truly endless.
However, having received, researched, and answered many of these and other related questions — at times on multiple occasions over the years — it became apparent that there existed a need for county and fire department officials to have a place to go to locate the black-letter law as it relates to their departments and the provision of fire protection to their constituents, families, neighbors, and friends.
Seeking to fill this need, AAC staff undertook the task of compiling the Fire Department Guidebook (accessible at www.arcounties.org/publication-library). The final version of the Guidebook was released and presented to county judges at the County Judges’ Association of Arkansas’ Winter 2020 meeting, held Feb. 5-7, 2020, in Little Rock, where a portion of the discussion centered on familiarizing those in attendance with the scope and contents of the Guidebook.
The resource lays out the methods by which a fire department may be established, pertinent sources of funding for those departments, and other logistical and operational concerns, such as department certification and reporting requirements. It is intended to help county and fire officials learn and understand the law surrounding fire protection and prevention services, as well as the procedures by which to implement and sustain them. Within the Guidebook, the reader will find a section dedicated to the following:
- Statutory Methods of Establishment, Assessment, and Operation;
- Funding Sources and Other Financial Procedures;
- Miscellaneous Applicable Statutes;
- Appendix (including numerous sample documents)
Each section includes topical summaries regarding the applicable chapter or subchapter of Arkansas Code, verbatim excerpts of relevant code, and may also include opinions from the Office of the Attorney General to help provide the reader with an interpretation of the law. The appendix provides numerous sample documents such as petitions, ordinances, and notices to aid in the more nebulous aspects of the administration of fire services. The content of the Guidebook is reflective of the law as it stands through the Arkansas General Assembly’s most recent 2019 Legislative Session and will be updated as necessary over time.
Accordingly, the Fire Department Guidebook may be considered a work in progress. While every effort has been made to include the most relevant information, officials and departments with additional information, suggestions, or comments to help improve this guidebook are encouraged to call or email AAC legal staff at 501-372-7550 or Lawclerk2@arcounties.org.
A map of these districts is available at http://arfire.arkansas.gov/.