School of Medical and Health Sciences
Working in high consequence yet low frequency, events Australian fire service Incident Controllers are required to make critical decisions with limited information in time-poor environments, whilst balancing competing priorities and pressures, to successfully solve dynamic large-scale disaster situations involving dozens of personnel within the Incident Management Team, including of front-line responders from multiple jurisdictions. They must also do this within the boundaries of public and political expectations, industrial agreements, and the legal requirement to maintain a safe workplace for all workers, inclusive of volunteers. In addition to these operational objectives, fire services must also provide realistic training to prepare frontline staff, whilst satisfying legislative requirements to provide a safe workplace under legislation that does not distinguish between emergency services and routine business contexts. In order to explore this challenge, in this article we review the different safety standards expected through industrial and legal lenses, and contextualize the results to the firefighting environment in Australia. Whilst an academic argument may be presented that firefighting is a reasonably unique workplace which exposes workers to a higher level of harm than many other workplaces, and that certain levels of firefighter injury and even fatality are acceptable, no exception or distinction is provided for the firefighting context within the relevant safety legislation. Until such time that fire services adopt the legal interpretations and applications and develop true safety management systems as opposed to relying on “dynamic risk assessment” as a defendable position, the ability of fire services and individual Incident Controllers to demonstrate they have managed risk as so far as reasonably practicable will remain ultimately problematic from a legal perspective.
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