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December 10, 2007
By W. Spence Sample

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An Albertan in northern Ontario

I had the great pleasure of attending the 2006 Northeastern Fire Education Conference last month in North Bay, Ont. For those of you from Ontario who have not yet participated in this conference, I can tell you that it is very well organized and very informative. Designed to meet the needs of the volunteer sector of our industry, I encourage you to plan to attend. This is a very well-attended event and the rumour is they had to write themselves an order for exceeding the occupant load in the conference facility one year … just a rumour, mind you!

At the conference, I presented a seminar on the potential legal perils of volunteer fund-raising and on the general issue of legal liability and the fire service. These are topics I have not dealt with in a conference setting for quite some time now and this session caused the hairs on the back of my neck to start standing and made me wonder what is was that was starting to scare me. What was “it”?

Yes, it is true that I am no longer practicing law  (I am a recovering lawyer) and now work on government policy for fire service delivery, but that was not it. “It” hit me on the second day during the second presentation. “It” caused my mind to wander and my focus to evaporate. My thanks go to all who attended and participated for their patience while I tried to regain my composure. “It” was a lesson I had already learned and the reason I had been avoiding short legal presentations for the last little while.

“It” is the fear of legal liability a lawyer can leave with everyone in the room when they are not careful to explain how the law properly fits into the fire chief’s daily routine. “It” can cause a perfectly rational fire chief or elected official to let the pendulum swing too far and make legal concerns a higher priority than they deserve. It can cause them to be more concerned with the law than with their mission to protect and save lives. I felt like a fire chief in front of council asking for a new truck by saying, “… If we don’t get it people will die.” The old hard sell!

Terry Dawn Hewitt experienced this same phenomenon several years ago when she crossed Canada presenting legal liability seminars for the fire service. Some fire services actually seemed to withdraw into their own little world. Others felt that if they put nothing at all on paper, they could not be attacked. A very strange reaction and, actually, very dangerous from a legal perspective as well.

But then, can you imagine the worry a volunteer fire fighter can have when you tell him or her that their fund-raising methods may put them at jeopardy of losing their house and all their worldly goods? They just wanted to give a little something back to their community; not everything they owned!  I wonder how that affects volunteer recruitment and retention?

Can you imagine how a fire fighter, chief officer or elected official might feel when they listen to you go through court case after court case where the fire department has been found negligent for poor fire fighting technique or some other reason attributable to the fire fighters? In North Bay, a fire fighter who had been there helped fill in some details on a case involving negligent overhaul where the department had been found liable. The court had ruled that the fire watch put on the property was too short. The fire fighter told us it had been three days long!  The bottom line is the legal/justice system is a mythical beast not well understood by many in the fire service and most prefer to avoid it.
My message is very simple. Yes there is a very definite place for legal issues and an awareness of the law in the fire service. But those legal issues must be put into perspective, as must every issue faced by the fire service. The law cannot govern how a fire service operates or what it does. The fire service itself and its elected masters must do that and they do it based on input from those they serve, the general public.

The law can help guide a fire service as the law helps identify societal norms and, more importantly, actions that are not acceptable. The law is just another piece of equipment in a growing toolbox that can be used to carry out that mission. The fire service has always had and must retain its strong moral and ethical foundation. Doing the right thing at the right time will not always mean doing the legally correct thing.

Give legal issues their proper place on your list of priorities, but do not let some lawyer come along and elevate those issues to a position on the list they do not deserve. This is what can happen in a 45-minute presentation. Put everything into perspective.

W. Spence Sample is a lawyer (non-practicing) and advisor with the Alberta Fire Commissioner’s Office. Before entering the law, he was a fire fighter, eventually becoming a Deputy Chief with the Edmonton (Alta.) Emergency Response Department. Sample is broadly recognized for his special knowledge of fire law and risk management issues. He can be reached at 780-644-5032 or spence.sample@gov.ab.ca.


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