Today’s question relates to police as rescuers. My correspondent says:
Police in NSW routinely respond to structure fires under lights and siren, often arriving before the fire service. When they do arrive, they often take action that, although well-meaning, can be very detrimental to the operations of the fire service. For example, there are numerous cases of police kicking in doors or breaking windows of houses with the intent of effecting rescue, however this type of uncontrolled ventilation can cause a catastrophic worsening of the fire situation inside the building. These actions are carried out without training, experience or protective clothing and can create a whole new level of complication for fire officers trying to manage the fire.
When questioned about this, police cite a section of the Police Act that empowers them to “protect life and property”.
Considering the risk to the occupants, subsequently arriving firefighters and the police officers themselves, and the fact that these incidents are occurring after a deliberate emergency response (a hazardous activity in itself), can reckless action be justified by a section in an Act of Parliament and do you think that this scenario is a reasonable application of the section cited?
No doubt the relevant section that they have in mind is section 6(2) of the Police Act 1990 (NSW). That section says “The NSW Police Force has the following functions: (a) to provide police services for New South Wales …” Police services includes ‘the protection of persons from injury or death, and property from damage, whether arising from criminal acts or in any other way’ (s 6(3)). I don’t think that section authorises any particular action.
But in this context so what? Who needs legal authority to enter a house to try and rescue someone in need? The answer is ‘no-one’, I could do it, anyone could do it. If legal authority is required, it’s not the Police Act but necessity. In New Zealand, Tipping J said in Dehn v Attorney General  2 NZLR 564 (at p. 580):
A person may enter the land or building of another in circumstances which would otherwise amount to a trespass if he believes in good faith and upon grounds which are objectively reasonable that it is necessary to do so in order (1) to preserve human life, or (2) to prevent serious physical harm arising to the person of another, or (3) to render assistance to another after that other has suffered serious physical harm.
In the Kuru v State of New South Wales (2008) 236 CLR 1 Gleeson CJ, Gummow, Kirby And Hayne JJ said (at ):
The common law has long recognised that any person may justify what would otherwise constitute a trespass to land in cases of necessity to preserve life or property. The actions of fire fighters, police and ambulance officers will often invoke application of that principle.
If the actions of the police are dangerous and not helpful, then the answer lies in taking it up with the Local Emergency Management Committee or getting FRNSW command to raise issues of training with the police. The law is not the issue. Anyone, police or anyone else, can kick in the door to try and rescue someone from a burning building if they choose to do so.