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December 7, 2011
By Laura King


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Dec. 7, 2011 – All eyes in the Ontario fire service are on provincial offences court in Owen Sound this week, where the trial resumed over charges laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against the Municipality of Meaford and its fire department.

Dec. 7, 2011 – All eyes in the Ontario fire service are on provincial offences court in Owen Sound this week, where the trial resumed over charges laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act against the Municipality of Meaford and its fire department.

If you haven’t been following, two Meaford firefighters were injured during a blaze at Reed’s Restaurant in September 2009. They were searching for trapped patrons, were low on air and had to be rescued; one firefighter needed to be resuscitated.

Three of six charges, laid by Ontario’s Ministry of Labour (MOL), were withdrawn by the Crown back in September, but three charges remain: failing to set up an accountability system; failure to establish a rapid intervention team; and failing to set up a command post. (In case you didn’t know, there is no requirement in Ontario to run an incident command system at a scene – just a tidbit from yesterday’s proceedings.)

The circumstances surrounding the rescue of the two Meaford firefighters has not been made public, and with two firefighter deaths in Listowel, Ont., in March and a training fatality in Point Edward, Ont., in 2010, investigations, and, perhaps, changes, are warranted.

The Meaford trial was in voir dire yesterday – a trial within a trial – to determine whether the court would classify Gerry Pritchard, an investigator with the Ontario Office of the Fire Marshal (OFM), as an expert witness – for the prosecution.

To be clear – and as defence lawyer Norm Keith pointed out repeatedly – the Crown’s objective was to have the OFM’s Pritchard give expert evidence against the Meaford and District Fire Department on the charges.

As Mr. Keith said often yesterday, let me repeat that: the OFM’s investigator – a distinguished-looking former fire chief who is approaching retirement age – had been served by the Crown to help to prosecute and convict the fire department.

Mr. Pritchard, to his credit, retained his composure under some fairly intense questioning by the defence, despite being unprepared for his day on the stand. Pritchard was unable to immediately recall dates and times of some meetings with the Ministry of Labour investigator, couldn’t say who his supervisor was in the investigation (apparently that’s not unusual in the OFM due to the sheer number of bodies) and, in some cases, had not taken the necessary notes.

As one courtroom observer astutely pointed out, it’s unlikely that OFM staff is trained to properly document such things given that this trial is the first in Ontario under OH&S legislation. (Still, some guidance for Mr. Pritchard would have saved him considerable embarrassment on the stand and eliminated some cringe-worthy moments for the fire chiefs in the gallery.)

On the other hand, there was some speculation that the OFM doesn’t want a conviction on the charges – nor does anyone in the fire service – and that failing to better prepare Mr. Pritchard, and thereby allowing him to be unceremoniously discredited by the defence, was a strategic move. (The counterargument is that given the OFM’s lack of experience in such legal matters, that’s an overly optimistic assumption.)

Regardless, there was considerable confusion over the role of the OFM in the Meaford affair. Stay with me here. According to the OFM’s website, its mandate under Ontario’s Fire Protection and Prevention Act is to “train firefighters and other fire department personnel, provide them with guidelines and best practices, and assist them with providing the best fire prevention and fire protection services they can.” The motto, familiar to those who have toiled for the OFM, is for fire personnel to be effective, efficient, safe, prompt and professional.

The Ministry of Labour, on the other hand, is tasked with protecting all workers in Ontario – including firefighers – and its mandate is to find out what happened in Meaford and prevent it from happening again.

From the evidence given yesterday, it wasn’t clear to the the court, or to defence lawyer Mr. Keith, what the OFM’s role was in the investigation into the Meaford incident. Indeed, Mr. Pritchard testified that he was told to go to Meaford and “find out what happened” without written guidance notes, scope, direction or other procedures.

Further, Mr. Pritchard testified that he had been told by a Ministry of Labour investigator that charges were not warranted and it was unlikely that charges would be laid. Pritchard’s operating assumption was that he was in Meaford solely for the purpose of reviewing fire operations.

The trial was supposed to hear Crown and defence testimony this week, but with yesterday’s lengthy voir dire and just five days scheduled to hear arguments, talk was of a carry over to March, when two days are scheduled to wrap things up.

We’ll keep you posted, but meantime here’s some conventional fire-service wisdom from two of Tim Beebe’s blog entries from September: Two Meaford firefighters tackled a rescue and fire attack (allegedly) without a rapid intervention team, proper accountability or command. They were injured and nearly killed. They found no one to rescue and the department is vilified . . . If people had been trapped in Reed’s Restaurant, as was reported, and if the brave Meaford firefighters had rescued them, they would have been rightly hailed as heroes . . . even though the same problems and deficiencies existed for which they are now charged. Guilt or applause is directly influenced by the outcome rather than mere facts.

All of which is well and good, but I still want to know why two firefighters ran out of air and whether lessons learned in Meaford can prevent it from happening elsewhere.

The bigger picture, of course, is that fire chiefs and trainers being held to a new level of personal accountability.

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