TORONTO - A rare prosecution involving a small Ontario town's volunteer fire department has ignited concern among firefighters that legal hazards may now be among the dangers they face in responding to emergencies.
While many in the fire services community are closely watching the case, the trial has gone largely unnoticed by the millions of Canadians who rely on volunteers to respond to pleas for help when things go up in flames.
"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?" said Mike Molloy, chief of the Meaford fire department now being prosecuted.
The case stems from an early morning restaurant fire in September 2009 when volunteer firefighters arrived to the frantic screams of a woman saying her boyfriend was trapped in the apartment upstairs.
Two firefighters — one had finished his shift at Dairy Queen the evening before — went inside.
As the building burned, one of them "lost air," although it's not exactly clear why.
In the ensuing mayhem, they were unable to get out and, with one near death, had to be rescued by colleagues.
The department is now on trial on three charges the provincial Ministry of Labour laid under the Occupational Health and Safety Act.
In essence, the ministry asserts that Meaford did not take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of the duo.
Now that the prosecution has made its case in Ontario court in Owen Sound, Ont., the defence is calling for the judge to throw the case out for lack of evidence. A decision is under reserve.
The defence argues the safety guidelines Meaford allegedly failed to follow are not legally binding, and says the ministry gave a no-prosecution promise at the start of the investigation.
More than 3,000 communities across Canada rely on volunteers to drop what they're doing and rush to a fire or rescue scene. In most cases, they get an honorarium that ranges from around $14 to $35 an hour when dealing with what can be high-risk scenes.
Without the resources and full-time professional firefighters of larger centres — there are fewer than 100 of those in the country — smaller departments may have difficulty accessing training, equipment and manpower.
Often, they have little idea how many people will actually arrive at a fire or car wreck until they get there.
"We roll to the scene with six firefighters and a truck," Molloy said. "We never know who's responding."
Defence lawyer Norm Keith, an expert in health and safety legislation, called the prosecution "intimidating and aggressive."
He said it has created the potential for a "war" between the Labour Ministry and fire departments, who normally collaborate on drawing up safety guidelines.
It could also discourage community-minded folk from signing up for fire duty.
"The theory of this prosecution is really quite dangerous for the fire service," Keith said.
"It will have the potential of a tremendously strong chilling effect on volunteers. They might just not want to be a volunteer anymore."
Fire scenes are unpredictable and unlike other workplaces. New synthetic building materials, when they burn, create a hotter and more toxic environment than seen previously.
While no firefighter wants to get hurt, emergency responders may find themselves with seconds to make decisions that others can spend years dissecting.
Although concerned about the potential chill, Tim Beebe, who's in charge of 14 volunteers in the community of Upsala in northwestern Ontario, says he's not ready to sound alarm bells about the Meaford case.
What it does highlight, he says, is the need for the federal and provincial governments to help smaller municipalities and their departments achieve compliance with safety standards.
"The system is willing to prosecute, but on the other hand, they aren't willing to step in and support," Beebe said.
"It's a huge problem. It's bigger than smaller municipalities can handle by themselves. They need help."
Tim Beckett, the chief in Kitchener, Ont., who heads the provincial fire chiefs association, said the organization is keeping a close eye on the Meaford case.
The outcome could have a "significant impact" on firefighter training programs to meet health and safety requirements, Beckett said.
"(That) may have impacts to the service delivery levels for municipalities."