As a senior Fire Officer, I rejoiced at the government's desire to give some form of protection from prosecution to emergency service workers as they give their services to those we protect. We are often criticised for being too risk averse but the legislative circumstances may explain why.
As understandable as the wish for firefighters to be brave heroes with no regard for their own safety may be, our legislative arrangements are such that this situation could not prevail without prosecutions of senior staff. Fire services have in the past been criticised for providing "insufficient information, instruction and training" - the consequent delivery of those elements inevitably creates some form of risk aversion. The knowledge that some other organisation in your sector got prosecuted for failure is a strong motivator. This is reinforced by the fact that HSE actions are taken as a sector signal - all fire and rescue services are expected to comply.
Whilst it is all very well for 'Monday Morning referees' to adjudicate over whether or not the decisions taken at the time of a dynamic and developing emergency situation were wise, in my experience fire commanders make the best decisions they can to stabilise and make safe the incident with often the bare minimum of information, and a tense conflict between the safety of their crews and those they are trying to protect and rescue.
Public safety services need some form of reassurance as to the support they will receive for their best efforts. Any Good Samaritan clauses will be perverse in application if some form of prosecutor leniency is shown to those amateurs who try to help people in distress, whilst not to those professionals who do likewise.
As seems to be the case in the USA, some form of prosecutor and judicial leniency seems appropriate for well meaning organisations undertaking what they perceive to be in the public interest. In considering the apparent lack of judicial support for the UK's emergency services, let us ask ourselves, if the tragic events in New York on September 11, 2001 had occurred in this country, how many Health and Safety prosecutions would have followed on the police and fire services?
Confusion does prevail: recently, services have been harshly criticised for not entering water under which people were known to be trapped. For fire and rescue services, (who simply cannot adequately prepare, equip and distribute assets across counties to enable a rapid response to all possible types of emergencies) the ability to be seen to do the right thing is almost non-existent, we are damned if we do and damned if we don't!
We all welcome Lord Young's view that it is not in the public interest to take action when someone injures themselves by putting themselves at risk for emergency purposes. That position does not however, give the required reassurance that managers will not be prosecuted for allowing them to do so; this is arguably the real source of the risk aversion I discuss. The acts of heroism referred to will need some definition and, rather than awaiting legal precedents which will undoubtedly shape that definition over the years, some guidance would be useful at theinception stage.
Posted: 16.17pm, 18.04.11
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