Firefighters duty bound to respond

Newfoundland firefighters resignation sparks questions about whether property owners can prohibit firefighters from their job.

Two Mondays ago the town council in Spaniard’s Bay, Newfoundland held its first meeting since 20 of its volunteer firefighters including the chief resigned en masse late last month to protest a complaint by their lone female firefighter, Brenda Seymour, that she had been harassed on the job and subjected to a 23 second porno film shown by a visiting instructor at the end of a training session two years prior.

The harassment controversy divided the town of 2600, caused the town manager to quit citing stress, and led to the instructor losing both his long held job as a certified instructor and his position as fire chief of a nearby firehall.

To replace all the firefighters who resigned (and were then fired) council advertised for applicants to build a new brigade.

Thirty-four people applied. Twenty-eight were hired: 21 former firefighters and seven new recruits. The number of women in the brigade has now climbed from one to four.

On February 22 council chambers and city hall overflowed with spectators many of whom arrived an hour early hoping to grab one of the 30 seats.

The town’s local newspaper, The Compass, reported a number of people inside and outside the chambers said if a fire were to happen on their property, they would prohibit firefighters Brenda Seymour or her husband Martin Seymour from setting foot on their property.

Asked about that, the deputy mayor chairing the meeting didn’t know how to respond.

“That’s something totally brand new to me,” he said. “We’re going to have to phone the fire commissioner’s office and ask if that’s a reality. Is that something that an individual can impose on the fire department?”

What an intriguing question! Even more intriguing that the deputy mayor didn’t have the answer.

My immediate thought was, “How could anyone identify one firefighter from another at a fire scene, clothed as they are in bulky suits, helmets, thick fireproof mitts and a balaclava covering all but their eyes, nose, and mouth?”

Checking with two local fire chiefs in our area I learned except for yellow hats worn by regular firefighters, and red or white hats denoting lieutenants or captains, even the fire chief can’t distinguish one member from another while answering a call unless the person has an obvious physical difference such as unusual height or shortness of stature, or a wooden leg.

Firefighters have unimpeded right of access to protect life and property, including endangered property of neighbours.

To do anything less than their utmost leaves them open to a lawsuit.

If a property owner impedes entry of firefighters on to his property, he would be apprehended by RCMP under the mental health act on the grounds the person is not in his right mind and may not realize he is putting himself in danger.

If the fire department were to arrive at a house fire where a divorcing couple were at war, and one spouse told the fire department, “Let it burn, my spouse isn’t getting any part of the house,” the firefighters would still be bound to save the burning building if they could.

If they didn’t, the other spouse could sue the fire department for loss of the house.

If the insurance company learned the property owner attempted to prohibit firefighters entering the property, the company might be unwilling to pay out for loss.

Nothing concentrates the mind like imminent danger and threat of property loss.

If one of these residents with a grudge against the Seymours saw their home going up in flames, their grudge would swiftly evaporate.