Does Your State Discourage Aid After Disasters?

RTAblog_2013_0523_TornadoDamageAbout half of US states have Good Samaritan legislation that protects volunteers who provide valuable post-disaster technical services for free. Don’t wait for a disaster to learn that your state discourages free assistance – you may have to wait longer to access your property, receive financial aid and start rebuilding.

The Good Samaritan
The story of the Good Samaritan is a parable from the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible. For many, it’s a commentary on our ethical responsibility to love our neighbors by treating them as we would like to be treated. The following image, painted by Rembrandt in 1630, shows the Good Samaritan making arrangements with the innkeeper.

RTAblog_2013_0523_GoodSamaritan

In the Bible, Leviticus 19:18 reads, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” The parable of the Good Samaritan is told by Jesus in response to questioning by “an expert in the law” (a lawyer) over the definition of “neighbor”. Today, states have had to enact legislation limiting the liability of professionals helping their neighbors.

Good Samaritan legislation isn’t meant to be an umbrella for all liability for all people helping during a disaster response – many, if not most, of the people helping don’t incur any liability. Registered architects and engineers who volunteer to provide technical services to assess buildings after a disaster may incur some liability because the scope of our work is limited.

Cal EMA Safety Assessment Program
The California Emergency Management Agency (Cal EMA) created a Safety Assessment Program (SAP) to train architects and engineers (primarily structural engineers) to conduct safety assessments of buildings after a disaster. The goal of the program is to supplement the local building officials with trained volunteers who can assess the safety of buildings to determine what part, if any, can be occupied. This allows people to get back into their homes so they’re displaced for the shortest possible period.

SAP teams typically include three poeple: a building official, an architect and an engineer. They use the Cal EMA SAP set of criteria and documents to record the condition of each building they’re asked to assess. The buildings may be houses or commercial structures. Engineers may also provide assessments for infrastructure like bridges and tunnels.

Using volunteer professional services not only reduces the impact of disasters, it can significantly reduce the tax-payer cost to the municipalities responding to the disaster. What would happen if your business could benefit from free professional assistance many times the size of your staff in the event of a disaster?

The Cal EMA SAP criteria limits the scope of work for the assessment. It’s a basic assessment, not a detailed evaluation  That seems to be where the liability arises – property owners shouldn’t assume that the assessment is a top-to-bottom review of their property. The SAP allows properties to be flagged for additional, detail inspection.

Does Your State Have a Good Samaritan Law?
The American Institute of Architects (AIA) tries to keep up with Good Samaritan legislation though it’s a significant challenge to monitor the law in all US states and territories. So, the AIA rightly suggests that you verify the existence and scope of Good Samaritan legislation in your state.

The AIA has published the following map to illustrate states with Good Samaritan protections and those without.

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Even if your state has a Good Samaritan law, we recommend that you contact your state AIA office to ask about what changes, if any, should be considered. You can find a link to the AIA’s state-by-state list of legislation on the page linked above the map. If your state doesn’t have a Good Samaritan law, we recommend that you work with your state AIA office and professional association of engineers to encourage your state legislature to enact appropriate legislation.

The Federal Effort
To address the issue of liability for professional volunteers at the federal level, Congressman David Reichert and thirteen co-sponsors introduced H.R. 1145 on March 11th, 2011.  The proposed bill went into subcommittee and appears to have died there. The AIA has published a write-up with more detail.

No Time for Protectionism
In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there were reports of unions turning away volunteers from other states. States like Mississippi that don’t have Good Samaritan laws yet experience natural disasters like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes should consider Good Samaritan legislation for the benefit of their constituents. When states don’t have Good Samaritan laws or they allow protectionism, citizens suffer because they’re displaced longer and services are restored more slowly.

In Conclusion
Good Samaritan laws aren’t a shield for bad behavior among volunteer professionals. The people who have earned SAP certifications are dedicated professionals who understand the personal devastation of disasters and want to help reduce disruption to our neighbors. If you looked through the proposed H.R. 1145, you might have noticed that it doesn’t cover gross negligence or willful misconduct.

Disasters aren’t just extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. They include other disasters like wild fires and man-made disasters such as terrorist attacks and industrial accidents. The scale of these disasters can leave thousands of structures damaged and in need of review before they can be accessed or occupied. That’s entirely too much to ask of any local building official’s office.

As with all of our blog posts on safety, we respectfully ask that you share this post with anyone who might benefit from this information. Thanks!

Ryan Taylor is a certified trainer for Cal EMA’s Safety Assessment Program. His current certification expires 08|31|2017. Cal EMA maintains a list of registered SAP evaluators on its web site.

First image by LakeMartinVoice and second image by seetheholyland.net used under creative commons license. Third image from the American Institute of Architects.

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