By Peter Sells
By Peter Sells
Dec. 12, 2011 – The blogs and news story that Laura King wrote last week about the trial in Owen Sound are a reminder that the qualifications of fire officers are subject to scrutiny at any time. Fireground decision-making is fair game for lawyers in civil trials, coroners’ inquiries or quasi-criminal proceedings such as the trial under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act that forms the subject of Laura’s writing. Officers will be held to the highest and most intense levels of accountability for their actions, and very little is out of bounds with respect to the behaviour and tactics that lawyers will employ. On the stand, you will be belittled, criticized, shouted at, even ridiculed in order to find any crack or crevice in the evidence you present or in your credibility. We may not like this situation (frankly, if any of you do like it I would question your sanity), but this is the nature of the adversarial legal system handed down to us over the last thousand years, give or take. The onus is on the officer to be prepared to face off against such a barrage, through training, rigorous note-taking, and reading everything you can get your hands on.
Reading? Reading what? Do you recognize the following names? Vincent Dunn, Francis Brannigan, David Dodson, Peter McBride, Mike Weider, Gene Carlson, Barbara Adams, Carl Goodson, Skip Coleman, Frank Montagna, Alan Brunacini, Harry Carter, John Salka, Paul Grimwood, Shan Raffel, Billy Goldfeder? If you don’t recognize at least 10 of those names from books or articles that you have read, then you are not doing enough reading. Among that list are the authors of unparalleled reference texts on building construction, fire-ground size-up, reading smoke conditions, tactical resource deployment, fire behaviour in buildings, fire ground safety, and fire service leadership. They come from four different countries on three continents. Their approaches to their topics range from street-smart lessons learned (Coleman, Montagna, Goldfeder, Salka) to decades-long study of fire problems and tactics (Dunn, Carter, Brannigan, Brunacini) to the application of modern analytical techniques to fire behaviour (McBride, Raffel, Grimwood, Dodson). Collectively, they hold graduate and doctoral degrees. They are on the faculties of universities, colleges and institutes. They are members of the NFPA technical committees and the Institution of Fire Engineers.
These authors may be included in the training curricula to which you have been exposed, or they may not. It’s up to you to fill in the gaps. When a lawyer is tearing you apart, and holds up a copy of a recent textbook by one of those authors, and asks you if you have read that book, how will it look if you say no? How will it look if you say that the book was not part of your officer training, which you completed 10 years ago? No book, no standard, no technical development is too new to be relevant. Your training is never completed. I remember reading a coroner’s jury recommendations into a 1978 fire at which three firefighters were killed. Among the recommendations was the establishment of a static command post and the use of an incident command system. That was seven years before the publication of Brunacini’s first edition of Fire Command.
Some officers are pushed into retirement after traumatic courtroom experiences. Some question why they would want to hold a higher rank in today’s litigious environment. Some wonder why they should be spending so much effort covering their butts. As has been written here before, comprehensive training and professional development will make it less likely that you end up in the courtroom in the first place. The ultimate goal is not winning in court, it’s a safer fire ground. Regardless of the outcome of the trial in Owen Sound, every effort should continue toward ensuring that the need for any future such proceedings is reduced to a minimum. If officers are not prepared to make a strong commitment to professional development and to face the possibility of a slow grilling on the stand, then perhaps they are right to question their career options.
Warning: Gratuitous name dropping ahead! I have worked with eight of the authors I listed above, and have met all but two at conferences, symposia or workshops. Starting from when I was a very junior acting training officer, I made it my business to become as informed as possible, through attendance and participation at conferences, working on textbook validation committees and a commitment of my own time and money to furthering my education at every opportunity. What about you? Does your fire service, the public you serve, your crew, or your family deserve any less?