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Laura King Editor's blog

Sometimes things go wrong

Written by Laura King   
Dec. 9, 2011 - It’s been an interesting week. As I said Wednesday, all eyes in the Ontario fire service – and clearly elsewhere too – are on the trial in Owen Sound over charges under Occupational Health and Safety legislation against the Municipality of Meaford and its fire department. (I won’t repeat the details. You can read more here.)

Since that post went up Wednesday morning, I’ve had more calls and e-mails than I have on any other issue we’ve tackled in the magazine or in blogs and editorials.

Why? Frustration. And fear.

Here’s the gist of it: If there’s a conviction – if the court determines that there were deficiencies in the response to the Reed’s Restaurant fire in September 2009 that led to two firefighters running low on air and needing to be rescued (and, in one case, resuscitated) – the fear is that volunteer fire chiefs (in particular, but perhaps paid chiefs too), will throw up their hands and walk away, unwilling to risk having their lives shattered and their reputations run through the muck if something goes wrong at an incident or in training.

If something goes wrong. As one caller pointed out this week, fire fighting is a job unlike any other: when firefighters are doing their jobs, something has already gone wrong. And despite policies, procedures, SOPs or SOGs, standards, ICS or IMS, and the best training money (or volunteer hours) can buy, things go wrong when rescuers enter buildings in which they think people are trapped. Ceilings collapse, floors give way, firefighters run out of air. No two fires are alike. Fire is unpredictable. If I had a dollar for every time I heard those two phrases this week . . .

Fire officers and incident commanders are trained to size up situations and recognize potential dangers but, as was pointed out to me many times in the last two days, sometimes those risks are not visible or anticipated because of hidden factors – fire burning in voids an oddly constructed roof, for example.

The Meaford trial was scheduled to run for five days this week then continue in March – the same month as the one-year anniversary of the line-of-duty deaths in the dollar-store fire in Listowel, Ont. The Ministry of Labour has until March 17 to lay charges in that situation, and fire-service personnel believe the province is waiting as long as possible to see how the Meaford situation plays out before proceeding – or not – with a case against Listowel. Many have noted the probable anxiety at the North Perth Fire Department in Listowel as Chief Ed Smith and his crews wait for the other shoe to drop.

There’s a lot of anxiety, too, in the voices I heard on the phone this week. Even with accountability systems, command posts and rapid intervention teams, things still go wrong at incidents, and, sadly, yesterday brought a tragic example. Despite the myriad lessons learned from the six firefighter deaths in the Worcester, Mass., cold storage warehouse fire in 1999, Worcester lost a firefighter yesterday and another was injured. The two firefighters were searching for a victim – as were the firefighters in Meaford and Listowel – when a wall collapsed on them and they lost contact with command. The surviving firefighter, who is in stable condition in hospital, was trapped for an hour inside the building.

Sometimes things go wrong.

- - -


Jay Patterson
Written by Jay Patterson on 2011-12-14 09:08:02
Courts presume a 100% solution to every problem. Fires are a destructive and chaotic expression of chemistry, and buildings were never designed maintain structural integrity under such conditions. This chaos combined with inherently dangerous fuel levels and interwoven support elements will potentially kill firefighters. There is no 100% safe solution other than to stand outside and watch. Our values and our love of our fellow man will not let us stand idly by in such circumstances, and 100% safe solutions rob us of our ability to act. I joined the fire service to save my neighbour, not watch him burn to death.  
Courts are designed to find blame and lay punishment and have no intent to instruct or correct. These are not necessarily criminal matters, and using the courts this way is destructive to the Ontario Fire Service and its members. 
Because courts create combatants out of the crown and the planiff, the opportunity to engage in open and honest dialog in post incident analysis is lost. These are valuable experiences, we indeed learn even more from our mistakes than our successes. The opportunity for Chiefs, Officers and Firefighters to transparently evaluate near miss or tragic circumstances is lost to legal posturing out of the necessity of personal or institutional survival. 
Canada needs an independent and properly funded national fire investigative and research branch that properly addresses near misses and fatalities. The goal should be to improve our knowledge and skills, eliminate myth and guesswork, and give firefighters the feedback they need to improve their response skills so they come home to their families SAFE after every training night, shift or fire.
Peter Sells
Written by Peter Sells on 2011-12-09 15:21:36
Tim makes an excellent point about the lack of a post-incident analysis. Our neighbours to the south would have NIST, NFPA, OSHA and USFA resources and expertise to apply to the situation. None of our provincial labour ministries or fire marshal's commissioner's offices have the budget or time to fill this need. Time for another call for a National Fire Advisor?
Written by Tim Beebe on 2011-12-09 10:57:55
The fact that we are two years into this, and there is still no "lessons learned" report shows that our system's first priority is to find blame. The flow of information is throttled because neither side wants to jeopardize their case. I know it's the way things work, but we're going to have to figure out what is more important: 
1. pointing a finger and sending everyone running for cover, or 
2. creating an open atmosphere so we can figure out what went wrong and learn from it.  
They aren't two sides to the same coin. They are completely different currencies.

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