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Flashpoint: No more mister nice guy (apologies to Alice Cooper)

I remember someone once describing to me the difference between firefighters and police officers.

June 6, 2008
By Peter Sells

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I remember someone once describing to me the difference between firefighters and police officers.

When a cop comes to your house because someone broke into your garage, the cop is your buddy and is doing a great job.

The very next day when you get a ticket from the same cop, you can’t believe how a hero can turn into a jerk overnight.

Firefighters, however, are always the nice guy. We are always there to help and always seen in a positive light. This is one of the reasons why we are always ranked so highly in terms of public satisfaction and societal regard. But it also may not always be compatible with our mission. Sometimes we have to be the bad cop.

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There is a lot of media attention right now on the direction being taken by fire chiefs and fire marshals towards charging the owners of properties where fatal fires have occurred if, for example, there was no working smoke alarm.

This is not a new concept. 

What is new is that we are losing our reluctance toward exercising the powers the fire service has always had. The standard line of reasoning is that the bereaved family has already suffered enough.

I can’t speak to the quality of someone’s suffering, but to be frank it is not a matter of personal compassion. It is a matter of determination of criminal negligence and accountability for one’s actions. We have faced these situations before and often we take the nice way out instead of doing our job by the book.

About 20 years ago we started to see “do not resuscitate” orders beginning to appear outside of hospital settings. This did little more at first than muddy the situation often faced by our officers and firefighters when they were dispatched to a scene where someone had passed away at home – fully expected – as the result of a long-term illness or a deteriorating medical condition.

In the absence of a pronouncement of death or a valid DNR order, the only action that should be taken by firefighters on an adult patient with no vital signs is to begin resuscitation. It is neither helpful, nor nice, nor pleasant to do this in front of a grieving family but it is the only option. The officer does not have the discretion to order otherwise.

If we were dispatched, either by the family inappropriately calling 911 or by a third party, a mistake was made. If this seems cold or harsh, well actually it is. It is a cold, harsh reality of our job.

Imagine a situation where a son of the deceased, one who was not present at the scene, calls the fire chief the next day demanding to know why his father was not given CPR (not a hypothetical situation).
More recently we have been dealing with the popularity of backyard fireplaces, or chimineas.

People have a certain confidence that the products they buy are safe and appropriate for their intended use. The problem in this case is that a fire contained in a chiminea is classified as open-air burning for the purposes of most fire codes. As such, it is often prohibited by local bylaws in urban or suburban areas.

If we are called to the backyard of someone who bought a chiminea in good faith at a local store, once again the officer does not have discretion.

The only appropriate action is to ask the homeowner to extinguish the fire and refrain from future use of the device.

They may very well be upset with the officer, but think back to my previous column on emotional intelligence. Sometimes we have to take the figurative crap from people. The homeowner’s dissatisfaction should be directed at the retailer, who knew fully well that the item was not approved within town limits (hence the disclaimer on the weekly flyer, in about a four-point font).

Comparing an unapproved backyard fireplace to a family bereaved by the loss of a child may not seem even or balanced, and certainly the two situations don’t balance in terms of the severity of the consequences. But in each case we can either choose to fulfill our responsibilities as stewards of public safety or we can choose to be the good cop.

Also in each case, the tough choice to make is actually the easy choice to defend.

Ask the homeowner to keep the fire small and the neighbour will call you again the next time the smoke drifts into his window.  Don’t charge the victim’s family and they are not held accountable for the death of a helpless child.

In a no-win scenario, if you go by the book you stay off the hook.  Now I’m starting to sound like Johnny Cochrane.

District Chief Peter Sells writes, speaks and consults on fire service management and professional development across North America and internationally. He holds a B.Sc. from the University of Toronto and an MBA from the University of Windsor.


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