April 30, 2012 - The trial on the remaining charge against the Municipality of Meaford and its fire department over two firefighter injuries in the response to a restaurant fire in 2009 resumes today in provincial offences court in Owen Sound.
I’ll be there, curious to find out how this final week in in the trial, which will focus on whether there was a proper accountability system in place, will play out.
Two weeks ago, the inquest into the four fatalities in the Muskoka Heights retirement residence fire started in Midhurst, Ont. Last week’s testimony, by the home’s manager and its owner, Dean Rushlow, and his lack of understanding of the fire code and the home’s fire-safety plan was disturbing, at best.
And next week, the trial begins against a trainer who was on the scene of a firefighter fatality in Point Edward, Ont., during ice-water rescue training.
All three legal proceedings are playing out against a backdrop of frustration among Ontario fire-service leaders over lack of provincial government support for mandatory sprinklers in homes for vulnerable occupants (a technical consultation is forthcoming, but it’s been a long time coming and is scheduled to take 12 months), and a somewhat strained relationship with the Office of the Fire Marshal over its role in these incidents and its level of support for fire chiefs who are liable and accountable when they sign off on fire-safety plans for businesses and residences in their communities.
The complex web of firefighter injuries in Meaford, a firefighter drowning in Point Edward during training and the four fatalities in the Orillia retirement home, will all be topics of water-cooler discussion at the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs conference that starts next Sunday in Toronto. We’ll keep you posted.
The remaining charge in the Meaford case is failing to establish an accountability system, or, in legalese, that the defendant “failed to take the reasonable precaution of activating an accountability system to track firefighters entering a burning structure.”
Three other charges laid by the Ministry of Labour under the Occupational Health and Safety Act were withdrawn by the prosecution in September. And Justice of the Peace Thomas Stinson determined after hearing witnesses in December that there was not enough evidence to support charges of failing to set up a command post and failing to establish a rapid intervention team; those charges were also withdrawn.
As we reported in February, in his decision to proceed with the single charge, Stinson says, “it is clear to the court that there is certainly some evidence which, if believed, could lead a trier of fact to conclude, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an accountability system was not properly activated at the scene of the Reeds fire and that every precaution reasonable in the circumstances was not taken.”
Stinson notes that there is no specific legislative requirement for a fire service to set up an accountability system at a fire scene but that Ministry of Labour guidance notes outline the importance of doing so.
“It is recommended that employers establish written policies and operational guidelines for personnel accountability and entry control in accordance with the provision of their own incident command systems,” the guidance note says.
Stinson also says the guidance note acknowledges that “the accountability system may be adapted to individual fire department resources” but must account for the location and function of personnel and provide a means for extraction of firefighters from the interior of a hazard zone when conditions present an immediate life hazard.
Stinson notes that according to the defence witnesses who testified in December, there were inconsistencies in the accountability process at the Reeds Restaurant fire, and, he says, an inspector with the Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM) testified that the accountability board had not been in operation at the time of the fire.
We’ll see what today’s testimony brings.