Canadian Case Poses Challenge For Volunteers

There is an important case brewing north of the border that pits volunteer fire departments against the provincial Ministry of Labour in Ontario. It is a case that just as easily could be occurring in US courts, and calls into question whether there should be relaxed standards for volunteer fire departments, or if they should be held to the same standard as their career counterparts.

The Ontario Ministry of Labor is prosecuting the Meaford Fire Department alleging that firefighters failed to follow proper safety procedures required under the Occupational Health and Safety Act at a fire where two firefighters were seriously injured.

The fire occurred on September 9, 2009 at a restaurant with people reportedly trapped. Two firefighters sent a distress signal when they were low on air, and a rapid intervention team was assembled and deployed to rescue them. One of the trapped firefighter had to be resuscitated by paramedics. It was later found that there was no one trapped in the building.

The citation has sparked a huge debate about the safety and training procedures followed by the Canada’s volunteer fire departments.

The Ministry of Labor alleged that the department:

“1) Failed to take the reasonable precaution of activating an accountability system to track firefighters entering a burning structure.

2) Failed to provide sufficient training to a firefighter in the use of a self-contained breathing apparatus.

3) Failed to take the reasonable precaution of establishing a medical surveillance system for the purpose of having a record of pre-existing medical conditions of firefighters employed by the department.

4) Failed to take the reasonable precaution of maintaining effective supervision of an incident by establishing a command post at an appropriate location where radio transmissions could be heard by the incident commander.

5) Failed to take the reasonable precaution of providing equipment that would allow two firefighters to breathe from one cylinder without compromising the seals on their face masks, namely: trans fill hoses (extra air-supply connections) or a Rapid Intervention Team pack containing both trans fill hose and a spare breathing air cylinder.

6) Failed to take the reasonable precaution of establishing a Rapid Intervention Team for the protection of firefighters entering a building who may become lost or trapped. ..”

During the course of the case the Ministry of Labor withdrew half of the charges and the case has gone forward based on charges 1 (accountability), 4 (ICS and radio comms) and 6(RIT).

Many in the Canadian fire service feel that the case will discourage people from volunteering, as well as place unreasonable financial burdens on small volunteer fire departments. Some point out the hypocrisy of the provincial government demanding the volunteers provide the additional training and requirements without giving them the additional financial support.

The ongoing discussion about whether volunteers and career firefighters should be held to the same standards remains largely a theoretical one here in the US. Occasionally a case will pop up here or there, but none yet has sharpened the focus of the issues the way the Meaford case has in Canada. The case is ongoing and we will report the outcome as soon as we learn of the final decision.

More in the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.

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