Flashpoint: September 2012
By Peter Sells
An important legal case, perhaps even a landmark case for the Canadian fire service, was concluded in August, almost three years after two Meaford, Ont., firefighters narrowly escaped with their lives after a mayday was called at a restaurant fire in September 2009.
By Peter Sells
An important legal case, perhaps even a landmark case for the Canadian fire service, was concluded in August, almost three years after two Meaford, Ont., firefighters narrowly escaped with their lives after a mayday was called at a restaurant fire in September 2009. The specifics of that incident and the subsequent prosecution by the Ministry of Labour have been well-documented. Here is a quick summary of the charges and their disposition:
The fire department:
- provided insufficient training in use of breathing apparatus;
- had no medical surveillance system to record firefighters’ medical conditions; and
- failed to provide breathing equipment that allowed two firefighters to share one air supply without compromising the seals on their face masks.
Those three charges were withdrawn at the beginning of the trial in September 2011. The trial proceeded on the remaining charges that the fire department:
- failed to establish a rapid intervention team (RIT);
- failed to establish a command post; and
- failed to establish an accountability system.
The RIT and command post charges were subsequently dismissed in March with the final charge regarding an accountability system being dismissed on Aug. 7.
Certainly, those directly involved in this case are thankful of its outcome, however, I believe that there are some disturbing misinterpretations about this case. Here are a few conclusions that cannot and should not be drawn:
- Because of the inherent danger of fire fighting, life-threatening risks will be tolerated;
- Provincial or territorial ministries of labour do not have the ability to make fire department charges stick;
- These legal outcomes demonstrate that formal, written incident command protocols are not a hard-and-fast requirement, only suggested procedures.
I am not going to dignify the first false conclusion with any discussion, other than to dismiss it outright as a throwback to a previous generation in which machismo passed for professionalism. I would refer anyone who holds to the second false conclusion to the Yellowknife Fire Department. Following the Home Building Centre fire in March 2005 at which a roof collapse resulted in the death of two firefighters, action by the NWT Workers’ Compensation Board ultimately resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars in penalties and the termination of the employment of several senior officers. It is the third false conclusion that I believe is the most dangerous: complacency is exactly the wrong response to this legal outcome.
I fear that what has been lost on many observers is that it was not only the Meaford and District Fire Department that was on trial; the guidelines to which it was being held and the guidance notes produced by the Ontario fire service Section 21 advisory committee were also on the stand.
It really should not be a surprise that the Meaford charges were withdrawn, given how loosely and imprecisely the guidance notes are written.
For example, although an accountability system must be in place whenever an incident-command system is used, the incident-command system is little more than a strong suggestion. The guidance notes say an incident-command system should be in place. By contrast, NFPA 1561 Standard on Emergency Services Incident Management System states that “the personnel accountability system shall be used at all incidents.” Even to imply that routine incidents may not require the use of an incident command system is irresponsible, given that this is exactly where most firefighter deaths and injuries happen.
In fairness to the firefighters and fire officers who serve on the Section 21 committee, the guidance-note process is handcuffed by Ministry of Labour policy. The notes cannot contain directive terms such as shall or must unless they are referencing legislation. While agencies in other jurisdictions, notably the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the United States, will entrench NFPA standards into regulations, Ontario’s MOL feels it can give the fire service only a gentle nudge in the right direction and hope for the best; to then turn around and prosecute, using its own lukewarm criteria as standards of performance, is not a fair game.
This is too important to let lie. Best practices in fire-ground command and control are being regularly exercised by large and small fire services all over the world.
Why is the Ontario fire service being made to reinvent the wheel?
Retired District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org