By Laura King
Aug. 27, 2015, Toronto – Something to ponder: a directive from Ontario Fire Marshal Jim Jessop – his first (and likely only given his imminent departure) – says that when incidents occur that require OFM investigations, “media releases should be kept to a minimum” and all reporters’ requests deferred to the investigating agency.
This, as you can imagine, got my blood boiling.
The Fire Marshal’s Directive 2015-002 was released July 21, a month or so after Jessop took over from former fire marshal Ted Wieclawek. Clearly, I’m a bit behind in my Office of the Fire Marshal and Emergency Management news (I don’t usually go trolling for OFMEM directives – it was a slow news day!). But whoa, let’s think about this for a minute.
Not telling the media what happened was the problem in Elliot Lake, Ont., after the Algo Centre mall collapsed in 2012, killing two women: the way I see it (I’ve said this before), had reporters been told that there were two victims rather than led to believe there were multiple bodies in the rubble, the province could have avoided a $20-million inquiry and two years of upheaval for families, firefighters and townspeople.
What’s more, if you’ve read this space before, you’re well aware of the OFM’s abysmal track record with (my) media requests over the years.
It’s appalling (but not surprising, really) that the OFM wants to control media, particularly when the recommendations from the Elliot Lake inquiry specifically say that teams with media expertise should be available to municipalities during declared emergencies. The OFM in its present chaotic state (that’s a blog for another day!) neither communicates with media nor has the necessary expertise to do so. Harsh? Maybe. But I speak of what I know.
Furthermore, the document instructs fire chiefs to provide a list of documents – firefighter statements, dispatch chronology, incident-commander reports, and fire-prevention files – to OFM investigators post-incident. Which is exactly what others in this province have been telling fire chiefs not to do, in order to protect themselves if there is potential for charges to be laid.
Remember the Meaford trial, when it came to light that a Ministry of Labour investigator told the then fire chief that there would be no charges under the Occupational Health and Safety Act after two firefighters were injured during a restaurant fire? The chief complied and handed over documents, charges were laid, and the evidence was used – by the prosecution.
Think about it: essentially, the province is telling chiefs that they do not have the same rights as other citizens. (In any other situation, the investigating authority must get a search warrant to obtain evidence.) Is that a bit over the top given that fire chiefs in Ontario are designated assistants to the fire marshal (they are not, however, OFM employees) and must comply with OFM directives?
Look more closely at the directive: it says it is the duty of the fire marshal to investigate cause, origin and circumstances of any fire or explosion that meets certain criteria (fatalities, serious injuries, large-loss fires, for example). The Office of the Fire Marshal helps police determine if fires were set purposely and it is important that security be maintained, the directive says. Fair enough.
Do firefighter statements after the fact, the dispatch chronology, incident-commander reports detailing suppression and overhaul activities, and fire-prevention files help to determine cause, origin and circumstances? Maybe fire-prevention files would help (smoke alarm violations, for example); the others, I’m not so sure about.
I am sure, however, that like not telling reporters the truth – or anything else for that matter – this isn’t going to go over well.