Most volunteer fire and rescue services rely heavily on the ability of their members to respond to your call for assistance in their personal vehicle; some responding directly to the scene while others might go to the station to get their fire or rescue vehicle. Some of these volunteers use red or blue lights to request that you allow them to pass.  Doing so, some argue, is essential to the organization’s ability to get to your emergency in a timely manner. Is it legal? Does the volunteer’s auto insurance policy cover this use?

Red Flashing lights in Rhode Island are legal to be used by officers of volunteer fire and rescue services with a special permit and signed approval of the organization’s chief or senior officer. Basically they are a visual implied request to other drivers to allow the volunteer to pass upon their approach. They are not a demand to provide the right of way. They do not permit the driver to illegally pass or speed. They do not grant the operator the same privileges of an emergency vehicle. The operator is required to obey the State Motor Vehicle codes. 

While it is legal to use an emergency red flashing light, it does not answer the question as to whether the operator’s insurance will stand behind them after an accident. The common personal auto insurance policy has language that can be interpreted to indicate that coverage during such use is excluded. But that language is not clear. To clarify the point, I reached out to a national panel of policy language experts associated with the Independent Insurance Agents & Brokers of America to get their interpretation.

Part A of an auto policy defines your coverages and exclusions. Section A.5 states “we do not provide liability coverage for any insured arising out of the ownership or operation of a vehicle while it is being used as a public conveyance”.  Section A.7 states that “coverage is denied for liability arising out of maintaining or using a vehicle while that insured is employed or otherwise engaged in any business.” If the volunteer fire department is a corporate entity, non-profit or commercial, could it be considered a business operation? If the volunteer is receiving call pay or reimbursed for mileage, is he or she then receiving compensation for the services they are rendering? Does that compensation subject the volunteer to the definition “otherwise engaged in any business?” These points were addressed by the panel.

None of the panel members felt there were any exclusions that were clearly intended to exclude coverage for this use. They unanimously agreed that there was concern for a faulty interpretation of the definition of “Business” or “used in any business”; particularly by a claim representative after an accident. Most companies use the standardized ISO insurance policy format which we believe fails to clearly exclude the red light activity. On further investigation, we found that many of them have written company underwriting guidelines that prohibit an underwriter from accepting such an exposure.

The insurance policy is a contract between the insured and the insurance company. In return for your payment of the premium, the insurance carrier agrees to provide the insurance coverages that protect you against loss. Failure to disclose a material fact in a contractual agreement is grounds for voiding that contract. Disclosing to your underwriter the usage of emergency lights may cause a carrier to deny coverage or issue a non-renewal notice for your policy. My suggestion is that it is better to reveal this exposure now so as to avoid a legal challenge the day a loss does occur.

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