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Chapter 8

Public Safety and Emergency Services

Ensuring the safety of residents is a primary focus of municipal government. A Select Board’s relationship with emergency service operations depends on how a town is structured. In some towns, the responsibility for running police and fire departments rests largely with the chiefs. In others, the Select Board or town manager retains authority to approve rules and regulations and appoint personnel. In towns without a manager, Select Board members need to understand how the security of the town’s residents is being protected, in order to ensure that emergency service personnel are carefully selected, well-trained and properly equipped, and to monitor procedures and practices used to carry out this critical function.

Police Departments

Unless otherwise specified in the town’s charter or by a special act of the Legislature, the Select Board is the appointing authority for the chief of police and other police officers, and may enter into an employment contract with the police chief.

The Select Board’s legal relationship with the police department varies depending on the statute under which the department is organized. Under Chapter 41, Section 96, the Select Board is granted the power to appoint police officers to serve at their pleasure. As long as the police are not subject to civil service, or the collective bargaining agreement does not specify otherwise, the Select Board may remove the chief or other officers for cause, after a hearing, at any time during their appointments.

Under the so-called “weak” police chief statute,1 the Select Board appoints a police chief to run day-to-day operations and may appoint any other officers the board deems necessary. Under this statute, the Select Board may make regulations for the police department. Where a collective bargaining agreement provides a standard for discipline, Section 133 of Chapter 41 provides that, after completing a one-year probationary period, police officers must be reappointed unless the appointing authority has just cause, or whatever standard the collective bargaining agreement specifies for discipline, and then only after a due process hearing.

Under the so-called “strong” police chief statute,2 the Select Board appoints the police chief, and the chief has the power to make regulations for the department, subject to the Select Board’s approval. While the Select Board still has the ultimate authority over the department, a greater degree of management and policy-making responsibility falls to the chief. The police chief is in control of the police officers and the property used by the department. The chief assigns officers to their respective duties.

Another statutory option3 is a commissioner of public safety, who acts as both police chief and fire chief. The Select Board has the authority to appoint a commissioner of public safety, and the commissioner may appoint a deputy as police chief and one or more deputy fire chiefs, subject to the approval of the Select Board. In practice, some communities have simply appointed a commissioner of public safety without accepting the state law. In most cases, the same person is appointed both as police chief and fire chief.

Appointment, Training and Removal – POST

The Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Commission was established under a 2020 criminal justice reform law to focus on efforts to improve public safety and increase trust between members of law enforcement and the public. The POST Commission is charged with creating a mandatory certification process for police officers, as well as processes for decertification, suspension of certification, or reprimand in the event of certain misconduct.

The authority to appoint (hire), discipline and promote police officers in departments governed by civil service is controlled by various provisions of Chapter 31. In non-civil service departments, the terms of any applicable collective bargaining agreement apply to discipline and occasionally to at least some aspects of promotions. Appointments are a managerial prerogative, meaning the appointing authority may decide whether to fill a vacancy as well as what hiring process and qualifications will apply. Appointments may also be controlled by any applicable provisions of the personnel bylaws.

Appointments and promotions under civil service are subject to competitive examinations and certain minimum qualifications. Even non-civil service hiring, however, is subject to a variety of state and federal requirements. For civil service departments, it is important to recognize that the Massachusetts Human Resources Division, which supervises and administers the public safety examination process, is willing to alter the promotion process and allow examination processes other than traditional written examinations.

Non-civil service departments, while not required to follow any statutory hiring or screening procedures, often purchase commercially available written entry and promotional examinations or use written examinations in combination with other processes (such as assessment centers) in making appointments or promotions.

State law prohibits any person who has been convicted of a felony from being appointed as a town police officer. Permanent, full-time officers must attend (approximately 800 hours) a police basic recruit academy approved by the Massachusetts Municipal Police Training Committee prior to exercising any police powers. Police officers must also receive regular in-service training as determined by the Municipal Police Training Committee. State law requires police officers to reside within a certain distance of the limits of the town where they work, though towns may require, by bylaw or collective bargaining agreement, that all regular police officers hired after August 1, 1978, live within the town limits.

Reserve Force

Towns that are not under civil service and have an organized police department may establish a reserve force by accepting the applicable section of law. Reserve officers are appointed in the same manner as regular members of the police department. They are subject to rules and regulations of the Select Board and may be removed by the Select Board for any “satisfactory” reason. A town may opt to put reserve officers under civil service. In civil service departments, appointments to the intermittent or reserve force are governed by civil service and appointments to the regular force come first from members of the reserve or intermittent ranks.

Holding Cells

Towns with 5,000 or more residents are required by law to maintain a “secure and convenient” holding cell for people in police custody. The Select Board is required to appoint a keeper of the holding cell, who is responsible for the care and custody of those detained there. The holding cell must be accessible at all reasonable hours to the State Police, sheriffs, constables, and police officers for legal and proper uses, and there are strict requirements for the way holding cells must be equipped and operated. These requirements protect those who are held in custody as well as the town (from liability resulting from an injury or suicide). Holding cells and police stations also must comply with health, safety and sanitation regulations of the Department of Public Health. The Select Board is responsible for seeing that the regulations are enforced.


Massachusetts has adopted a host of gun control laws to protect public safety and health, and has the lowest rate of gun deaths per capita in the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

The authority to license a firearm lies with the local police chief, as opposed to a state-level entity. This oversight is important because local police departments are familiar with their residents. In deciding whether to grant a license, the chief must determine whether the applicant is a suitable person to possess a firearm, and, if so, whether he or she can demonstrate a proper purpose for carrying one. The decision is virtually never overruled by a court, which can do so only if the chief’s decision is found to be arbitrary or capricious or an abuse of discretion. Only a handful of states in the country allow this type of local licensing authority.

The police chief also issues licenses for people to sell, rent or lease firearms, shotguns, rifles and machine guns, to carry on the business of a gunsmith, or to sell ammunition. When issuing or renewing these licenses, the police chief must give notice of his or her action to the state public safety commissioner.

Fire Departments

Yarmouth fire station.

The appointing authority for fire department personnel, as well as the structure of a town’s fire safety operation, varies according to the statute by which it was established.

Under the so-called “weak” fire chief statute,4 which is similar to the law governing “weak” police chiefs, the fire department is under the direction of the Select Board. The Select Board appoints a fire chief and other fire personnel and fixes their compensation. The Select Board may make suitable regulations governing the fire department and its personnel, and the board may remove the chief and other personnel at their discretion — if such personnel are not under civil service, do not have an employment contract, or are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement. The fire chief controls town property used by the department as well as the department’s officers and other personnel. The fire chief is the forest warden.

Under the so-called “strong” fire chief statute,5 the Select Board appoints a fire chief, who in turn appoints a deputy and other fire personnel. Unless otherwise specified in an employment agreement, the fire chief may be removed by the Select Board for cause at any time, after a hearing. Similarly, unless a collective bargaining agreement provides otherwise, the fire chief may remove fire department personnel for cause at any time, after a hearing. Under this law, the chief has “full and absolute authority in the administration of the department,” makes rules and regulations, and reports to the Select Board from time to time. The fire chief also fixes the compensation of permanent and call members of the fire department. For collective bargaining purposes, the Select Board is deemed the employer and negotiates the benefits for firefighters (either directly or through its designee, such as a town manager or labor counsel). Oftentimes, the fire chief is part of the management negotiating team. The appointment of the fire chief in any town or district with a population of 5,000 or fewer may be for a period of three years.

In civil service departments, whether under a “weak” or “strong” fire chief, all appointments, promotions, removals and discipline of employees must be done in strict compliance with civil service laws, which are intended to provide for a merit-based employment system and procedural safeguards for employees.

Fire districts may be organized in any town not having an adequate fire department. The district may establish its own fire department, headed by a chief engineer.

Forest Fires

The Select Board is required to annually appoint a forest warden, who is responsible for putting out forest fires. The forest warden is most often the fire chief. Money appropriated by a town for the prevention of forest fires is spent by the forest warden under the supervision of the Select Board.

Mutual Aid – Police and Fire

Towns must enter into agreements with neighboring cities or towns to provide police, fire or other mutual aid. Compensation and travel expenses are typically paid by the city or town making the request for mutual aid, unless the mutual aid agreement provides otherwise. On request, Select Boards in towns that border or include federal government reservations may authorize their police force to lend assistance.

Another form of a mutual aid agreement is an inter-municipal agreement, created under Section 4A of Chapter 40 (sometimes called a “4A agreement”). Such agreements, whereby a community provides services or assistance to another, require the approval of the Select Board and can be for a variety of functions. Some communities use these agreements for animal control services.

A variation of inter-municipal agreements is a public safety mutual aid agreement under Section 4J of Chapter 40 (sometimes called a “4J agreement”). These provide for emergency assistance in times of a public safety incident, which is defined as “an event, emergency or natural or manmade disaster, that threatens or causes harm to public health, safety or welfare and that exceeds, or reasonably may be expected to exceed, the response or recovery capabilities of a governmental unit including, but not limited to, a technological hazard, planned event, civil unrest, health-related event and an emergency, act of terrorism and training and exercise that tests and simulates the ability to manage, respond to or recover from any such event.”

Mutual aid agreements under Section 8G of Chapter 40 involve just the parties to the written agreement.

Under a 4J agreement, the text of the agreement is the statute, and assistance can be requested from or provided by any of the communities that have opted to join. A 4J agreement is, however, limited to public safety assistance. A town that is a party to a 4J agreement can request assistance from any other community that is a member directly, or through the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency, which acts as a coordinating agency for 4J participants.

Emergency Management

Flooding along the Ipswich River

Towns should have an emergency management organization, led by an emergency management director who is appointed by the Select Board or town manager. The director may be any public official, but is most often the fire chief or police chief. Local organizations are part of a statewide network, under the leadership of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency. The federal Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act (“Stafford Act”) provides for assistance and coordination among federal, state and local governments in times of disaster, and Select Board members should be familiar with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Incident Management System. Typically, local organizations are most active during natural disasters, providing shelter and emergency power generation to residents.

Although Select Board members are not responsible for directing emergency management operations, they must understand the various issues affecting the administration of their town before, during and after an emergency. In the beginning of such events, the focus is on providing safety and protection to the public. An important tool that towns can employ is an enhanced 911 system, which improves emergency response time for police, fire and emergency medical services. Under a separate law,6 Select Board members are enabled to initiate emergency spending in times of war, public emergency or distress, in order to maintain, distribute and supply a sufficient supply of food, other common necessities of life, and temporary shelter. The Division of Local Services provides guidance on this emergency power.

The emergency management director should oversee and implement an Emergency Response Plan, in order to be prepared when a disaster occurs. An emergency response plan must identify and answer pertinent questions relating to preparing and protecting the community, and will vary from town to town depending on traits specific to that town (e.g., coastal, urban, etc.). The following broad questions should be raised:

  • Who has the authority to do what in times of disaster?
  • What are the personnel rules in times of disaster?
  • What are the special rules in contracting during times of disaster?
  • What actions can the government take during an emergency to provide for public safety and welfare?
  • What are the miscellaneous legal issues that need to be considered?

The MEMA website offers more information about emergency management.Another tool to assist with emergency management is the creation of a Community Emergency Response Team (CERT). The CERT program was created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency to educate volunteers about disaster preparedness for the hazards that may occur where they live. CERT offers a consistent, nationwide approach to volunteer training and organization that professional responders can rely on during disaster situations, allowing them to focus on more complex tasks. Roughly 100 municipalities have CERT teams.

Emergency Medical Services

Most towns make some provision to ensure that their residents have access to emergency ambulance and medical services. There’s a range of models for providing these services. Towns may contract with a private ambulance service or enter into agreements with other governmental units to provide joint fire, rescue and ambulance services. Many towns subsidize volunteer ambulance groups or provide emergency medical services through their police or fire departments. There are various levels of service, including basic life support (BLS) and advanced life support (ALS). Towns often bill residents for ambulance services and collect from insurers and/or the recipients of the services.

Animal Control

Dog and other animal complaints are among the least favorite responsibilities of Select Board members. In many communities, Select Board members have had to sit in a quasi-judicial role and adjudicate complaints of dangerous or vicious dogs, which can result in orders of banishment or the more drastic order of euthanasia. State law grants towns the authority to enact bylaws regulating dogs and grants licensing authority for dogs to the town clerk.

Complaints of nuisance (such as excessive barking) or dangerous dogs (attacks on persons or other animals, or the placement of a reasonable person in imminent threat of physical injury or death) are typically the responsibility of the Select Board, although the law permits a town to designate another party to be the “hearing authority.” At times, a Select Board can solve a dog problem simply by acting as a mediator between the dog owner and the person bringing the complaint. If the problem is more serious, however, the Select Board must, after conducting an investigation, including a public hearing, find that the complaint is not valid, or that the dog is a nuisance dog or a dangerous dog and issue appropriate orders regarding its restraint or confinement. Any decision may be appealed within 10 days to the district court. The town can also seek appropriate court orders for the restraint or confinement of the dog pending an appeal.

The Select Board must annually designate one or more animal control officers, who may be police officers or constables, or contract with a domestic charitable corporation to perform the duties of animal control officers. These officers must also attend a state-approved training program. Animal control officers, who may not be licensed animal dealers, are primarily responsible for dealing with animal complaints.

Licensing Explosive, Flammable and Hazardous Materials

In most towns, the Select Board will issue licenses, pursuant to local bylaws, for the storage, handling, manufacture and sale of petroleum products, explosives, gunpowder, dynamite, fireworks and other flammable materials. Bylaws must be approved by the state Board of Fire Prevention, which also regulates these materials.

Licenses are granted for the property on which the flammables or explosives are being kept or used, and they may be transferred to new property owners if the property is sold. As the licensing authority, the Select Board has fairly broad discretion to grant or withhold these licenses, after a hearing, and to impose conditions on their use. For example, factors other than fire hazards (such as traffic congestion) may be considered when deciding whether to grant a license. Courts have upheld the right of towns to prohibit self-service gas stations, for example.

For a license to be issued, it must have the endorsement of the head of the local fire department. Licenses may be revoked after notice and a hearing by the licensing authority, or by the state fire marshal. They may not be revoked arbitrarily, however. The general oversight of explosives, flammables and hazardous materials is usually handled by the fire department. For more information, visit the Department of Fire Prevention.

MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Chapter 8: Last Updated: January 19, 2024
MMA's Handbook for Massachusetts Select Boards: Last Updated: March 25, 2024