Many people believe that some form of immunity has traditionally shielded the fire service from liability actions. This belief was fostered by a paucity of judgements imposing liability on public bodies for the actions or omissions of their fire departments. However, any sense of security enveloping members of the public fire service and leading them to believe they exist above the reach of legal accountability has now been shattered.
A series of superior court decisions dating back to 1980 and culminating in a trilogy of cases rendered by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1989 have expanded the scope of civil liability for public authorities. The result: an unprecedented outbreak of civil suits against public authorities for the negligent discharge of fire protection duties.
The purpose of the following guidelines is to guard against the two types of legal liability that the fire service is exposed to in Canada, as well as the United States.
– civil liability for negligence, and;
– occupational health and safety liability.
Below are some practical suggestions for the development of a risk management plan for public fire services. These are considerations aimed at reducing the likelihood of civil liability for negligence.
– ESTABLISH a fire by-law. If a fire by-law is already in place, have it reviewed by legal council knowledgeable about fire department litigation for potential liability traps.
-IDENTIFY the duties and operations of the fire department in government/non-government departments that are most likely to lead to liability claims.
-IDENTIFY AND REVIEW all contracts which govern the activities of the fire department or its members, for example, mutual-aid agreements, training contracts, private services agreements.
-DESIGNATE a person or persons respnsible for reviewing the fire by-law, standard operating procedures(SOP’s) and all fire department contracts on a regular basis to ensure amendments are effected that reflect changes in legislation, jurisprudence, recommended procedures and practices, and department policies.
-DEVELOPE AND IMPLEMENT standard operating procedures for the provision of fire services. These SOP’s ought to be taylor-made for each fire department but should also reflect nationally and internationally recognized standards which are approximate to the departmnets operations, (i.e., those of the National Fire Protection Association).
-ALLOCATE sufficient resources to ensure emergency response equipment is operational.
-ADOPT a policy respecting all systems of inspections: inspections of fire hydrants, vehicles, other equipment, fire code inspections.
-ENSURE all fire department policies are in writing and contained in an appropriate document, such as the fire by-law or directives. Keep minutes of meeting and reports surrounding the creation of a policy. These may need to be used later in evidence in the event of legal action.
-MAKE TRAINING A TOP PRIORITY. The standards expected of the fire service are increasing. All members of a fire department, whether paid or volunteer, ought to be provided adequate training for their job responsibilities. Personnel must be intimately familiar with all department policies and with the operating procedures pertaining to their job responsibilities and RELATED job functions. Written records should be maintained to prove department members have read required policies and procedures, and to show the extent of their training.
-ASSESS record keeping procedures and confirm that the documentation process is adequate. This applie to every field of fire service, from inspections, to emergency response and investigations.
-ARRANGE a legal liability audit of the fire department. The audit should include a review of policies, procedures and operations in light of the mandatory and permissive obligations or duties of the department.
What are the areas of fire department operations creating the most legal liability concerns to fire service personnel and their managers? Potential legal liabilities permeate every aspect of the fire service, but the most common operations resulting in civil liability actions are those involving fire inspections, and emergency response, including fire suppression. It is recommended that bthese areas of fire department operations be given priority in the creation and implementation of a risk management plan.
Litigation for the actions or omissions of fire departments and emergency services personnel is on the increase. This article is intended to provide a general introduction to this very complex area of the law. The advice contained in this article provides only some general guidelaines. Each fire department is encouraged to seek some specialized guidance to help them implement policies, by-laws and standard operating procedures to minimize their most significant liability exposures.