I’ve been a deputy-chief of a volunteer fire department and I’ve been a rank-and-file firefighter as well. I’ve sent people into fires and I’ve been sent into fires myself.
One of the first things you learn is that there are right decisions and wrongs — but if you dawdle and make no decisions at all, you’ve certainly made the wrong one. Things move too quickly and too much is at stake for you to take an endless amount of time weighing how to deal with the situation — the situation is changing all by itself, and you’re just being left behind.
Firefighting includes life-threatening situations and almost immediate decision-making, and the last thing any fireground commander needs is yet another layer of government bureaucracy, just waiting to bring legal charges against you.
But that’s what is happening in the Ontario town of Meaford, where a fire department is facing three charges after a rescue attempt went wrong, leaving a firefighter without air in a burning apartment. It’s a set of charges that must make fireground commanders think twice about whether they want to be volunteering their time.
As Mike Molloy, the Meaford chief, told the Canadian Press, “My concern is that, if in future, potential incident commanders are worried about possible litigation, is that going to make them second-guess their rescue decision?”
As a volunteer firefighter, you never know how many firefighters will reach a scene, what experience they will have and, often, who will be the initial scene commander. If two trucks, five firefighters and a fire captain get there first, the fire captain will take the initial command. It could just as easily be a deputy chief, or a firefighter. There has to be fireground command, it has to happen right away, and volunteer departments train to set those skills in motion quickly.
Wondering about litigation isn’t going to help that.
Am I saying fireground commanders should get a free ride for the results of their decisions? Of course not — there isn’t a volunteer fire officer anywhere who isn’t keenly aware that their decisions have ramifications.
What I am saying is that having to worry about backseat, Monday-morning quarterbacks nitpicking about every fireground decision would be crippling to the fire service.
The fact is, you’re already concerned enough when you start sending people into a fire. Your fire crew is like a second family. These are people you work side by side with during incredibly emotional times and during regular training and meetings. You know about their divorces and their kids, their jobs and their injuries, their senses of humour and their tempers. These are close friends who have been right next to you during some of the most traumatic experiences in your life. Sometimes, they are the only people equipped to understand how you feel, and why.
It is not an easy or thoughtless decision to send them into a burning building where floors or ceilings can collapse — neither can you wait and hope that someone else will show up and make the decisions for you.
It sounds trite, but seconds count, and you don’t have the opportunity to second-guess until after the fire’s done. You make mistakes and you learn from them, and hopefully, they’re small ones.
It’s hard enough now to get people to volunteer as firefighters. In this province, where scores of communities (and governments) depend on volunteers to fight their fires and respond to horrendous automobile accidents and medical emergencies, there are already many departments that simply can’t keep their rosters full.
What you see and hear and smell, the experiences that you have, can be exhilarating and scarring.
The idea that you might now have to worry about whether you’ll be dragged to court as well?
Good luck finding people willing to expose themselves and their families to that kind of risk, on top of every other risk they’ve already selflessly agreed to take on.
Russell Wangersky is the editorial page editor of The Telegram. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.