I’m not sure what state or territory this correspondent is based in (but given the question I infer that they are probably in WA or Qld).

I have worked, both paid and voluntarily, in the fire service (12+ years) and in the SES (13+ years) … I’m no longer in these organisations and am now working for contractors, I find myself working alongside people who have done the ‘zero to hero’ type courses. By that I mean someone who has literally shelled out several thousand dollars to do a breathing apparatus course, as well as a basic firefighting course and a few days of vertical rescue, confined space rescue and hazmat training. They have literally gone out, got the piece of paper, and are now earning the same wage as I am, with little to no experience.

I guess my question is, ‘what happens if it all goes bad?’ If there is a major incident in a gas field and there are casualties/fatalities, is the certificate enough to cover people? Or will the investigators/police/coroner look to the responders actual hands on experience? It should also be said that a large number of contracting companies don’t provide ongoing skills maintenance training. Once a person has that ticket and they’re on the ‘big dollars’, that’s it.

This question could touch on a number of issues to do with training and the Australian Qualifications Framework, the standards of Registered Training Organisations and the like. All of that would be outside my area of claimed expertise so I will not address issues that might arise in those areas.

Limiting my answer to issues of emergency response; the first part of the answer has to be that investigators, whether the police, coroner or work health and safety inspectors should look at all the factors that may have contributed to an event and its outcome. They will therefore look to the responders actual hands on experience if that is relevant in the circumstances that have arisen.

They all have different roles. Let us assume that we’re in Queensland; in that State a coroner may hold an inquest into a death if the Coroner is ‘is satisfied it is in the public interest to hold the inquest’. In deciding whether it is in the public interest to hold an inquest the coroner is to have regard to ‘the extent to which drawing attention to the circumstances of the death may prevent deaths in similar circumstances happening in the future’ (Coroners Act 2003 (Qld) s 28). The coroner is to identify the identiy fo the deceased and the cause of death (s 45) and may make comments on issues that arise from the inquest and relate to ‘public health or safety; or … ways to prevent deaths from happening in similar circumstances in the future’ (s 46).

If the issue of qualifications and experience was relevant, then of course the coroner could investigate that and if necessary, make recommendations.

The police have multiple roles in their investigation. They will investigate to assist the coroner and also to determine whether or not a criminal offence has been committed. In the scenario described in the question, it is unlikely any offence will have been committed but again, if it was relevant, the issue of the experience of the responders could be investigated.

The work health and safety inspectors are looking for evidence of breaches of the relevant work health and safety Act (in Queensland the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld)). The principle duty is set out in s 19:

A person conducting a business or undertaking must ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of—
(a) workers engaged, or caused to be engaged by the person; and
(b) workers whose activities in carrying out work are influenced or directed by the person;
while the workers are at work in the business or undertaking.

This duty includes a duty to provide first aid and an emergency plan (Work Health And Safety Regulation 2011 (Qld) ss 42 and 43)). The critical issue in work health and safety law is risk assessment. Did the ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’ (the PCBU) assess the risk and if so was the decision to employ people with qualifications but perhaps no demonstrated experience a relevant and reasonable response to the risk? Given that the whole point of vocational based training is to determine whether people are actually competent, one might think that it is; alternatively one might determine that one needs more experienced staff to supervise more junior, less experienced staff. I can’t say, in abstract, what the answer is but those would be the sort of issues to be considered.

Coroners and the work health and safety inspectors are not only looking for breaches of the law. They can and should investigate issues, even if there has been no breach of the law, so that they can make necessary recommendations to prevent future tragedies. In that context, if relevant, they may well want to look at qualifications and experience to see if they contributed to adverse outcomes and make recommendations for the future. Holding a certificate will not stop that investigation but it’s not going to be an investigation into the person but into the practices of the relevant employer or industry.

So ‘will the investigators/police/coroner look to the responders actual hands on experience?’ They can, and should, and would, if that issue appears relevant given the actual event.

The other part of the question was ‘is the certificate enough to cover people’?

The fundamental rule is that if you are an employee, and you are negligent in the performance of your duties, it is the employer who is liable for any damages. That is a rule of law, it is not some generous offer by employers or their insurers and it’s not something they can ‘get out of’ (so the message – ‘if you do everything right we’ll stand by you, but muck it up and you’re on your own’ is simply not true). The liability of employers for employees is a principle developed in common law (See Queensland Law Reform Commission, Vicarious Liability (Report No 56), December 2001) but it has been enacted into statute in some jurisdictions (see Employees Liability Act 1991 (NSW)) and where an employer is insured against liability, the insurer cannot seek to recover any damages from the insured’s employee (Insurance Contracts Act 1984 (Cth) s 66).

So if a person is employed straight out of college with whatever certificate they have, and if it turns out that when some event occurs they are not up to the task given their lack of actual experience, then even if it can be shown that a ‘reasonable first responder’ would have done a better job, the liability lies on the employer not the employee so in that sense the certificate will ‘cover’ the relevant employee but in reality what is covering them is their contract of employment. The mere fact that the person has the relevant certificate will not protect the employer if it is unreasonable not to insist that people have more than that qualification; but whether or not that is the case would depend on the particular facts in any particular circumstance.

If the person is an independent contractor, that is they are running a business that provides emergency services to industry, then neither their qualifications nor experience will protect them. In that case the law would expect them to act reasonably ‘The standard of reasonable care and skill required is that of the ordinary skilled person exercising and professing to have that special skill’ (Rogers v Whitaker (1992) 175 CLR 479, [6] (Mason CJ, Brennan, Dawson, Toohey and McHugh JJ)). A learner is not held to a lower standard due to their inexperience (Imbree v McNeilly [2008] HCA 40). Accordingly if a person is holding themselves out as an emergency manager, they are required to demonstrate the skill of a reasonable emergency manager whether they are 10 days, or 10 years post qualification. Whether, in any case, they did demonstrate that skill will again depend on the facts, not on the ticket they hold or the experience they have. A person 10 days out of college may do a great job; a person with 10 years experience may not. It’s not the qualification or experience that counts but their performance on the day.

I hope that helps.