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.
Slightly strange question, curious about the background that prompted it. Police responding lights and sirens….SO WHAT!!
I’m happy to provide some background to this question.
It was not a question of somebody spontaneously taking action at a situation that they may have come across (like a casual volunteer under the SERM Act). It more involves a conscious decision to respond as a work unit to take action that is unsafe (for themselves and others). There may be WHS issues.
It has become a more common occurrence since the emergency services all obtained access to the Computer-Aided Dispatch system.
As for empirical background, this issue was highlighted in New York a few years back when one police offer died and another was seriously injured in a rubbish fire in a high rise building.
As a result, some U.S. Police departments issued clear instructions on what to do at a structure fire. The instructions were to not enter the building, but to secure the outside perimeter and clear the path for arriving fire resources.
FYI, here is a link to the Cincinnati PD training bulletin:
Click to access cpd-fire-rescue-policy.pdf
Here in NSW, there have been numerous cases of Police being injured in fires, blocking roads before fire appliances arrived and even clashing with fire crews while they were fighting the fire. A couple of occurrences have already been referred to Safe Work NSW.
As for the responding issue, there was a case a little while ago where Police officers responding to a house fire in Newtown (to do what?) hit and rolled a cab. If someone had died, how could the emergency response be justified in the Coroner’s Court?
In the U.K., a fire officer was charged over the death of a civilian in a road accident while responding to a fire. An RFS firefighter was similarly charged in NSW. The emergency response issue is important.
I do wonder what would happen if the shoe were on the other foot.
The Fire Brigades Act has a clause that empowers firefighter to save life and property anywhere, whether fire is involved or not. Imagine the reaction if the Fire Service responded to the Lindt Cafe siege prior to Police arrival and went inside to save lives, knowing that it was a hostage situation. I doubt the Police would be too happy about it. If firefighters were killed or injured doing that, I doubt they would be hailed as heroes. It would be an irresponsible, unprofessional act.
A hypothetical question – If a civilian walked into a Police station and asked for advise about what they should do if they came across a house fire, would the Police advise them to kick in the front door, enter the premises and search for victims in the smoke?
I’m guessing not. To the firefighters, the Police are the same as that civilian, only with firearms!
Sorry for the rambling response, but I hate to think that a Police officer may die doing something that is not only unnecessary, but would probably worsen an already bad situation.
I can’t imagine it would be difficult at all. The police will attend to help control traffic, help control bystanders, conduct investigations etc. I can’t imagine anyone would question an emergency response by police to a fire. I don’t understand why everyone is so scared of the coroner. This simply wouldn’t be an issue.
That’s true but it’s equally true of a fire brigade response to a fire. As for the RFS firefighter one of the problems there was there was no emergency.
If it worked it would probably be fine; but take a less extreme example, eg a fire brigade at a fire detain someone who has been observed lighting the fire, that would be fine. Or a fire crew are asked to stand-by at an event to assist police and observe the offender slipping away so grab them. Comparing this situation to the Lindt Café Siege is comparing all fires to the London tower fire, but realising there is (or maybe) a person in the house and taking action is not unlawful (and that is the relevant subject for this blog).
I think they would absolutely be hailed as heroes (at least if it worked)– it’s a fine line between hero and dead and that’s why we reward heroes.
No doubt police would not give that advice and no doubt they don’t give that advice to their own members. But a civilian who sees a house on fire and who realises there is (or maybe) a person in the house is still free to try and rescue them and will be a hero if they do. First responders are always local. Friends and neighbours are likely to take such action, have done and have saved lives and sometimes come out the worse for it.
The question for this blog is, however, lawful authority. I don’t think authority is required to try and rescue someone from danger, but if it is, there’s plenty of it in the doctrine of necessity (discussed in the post) and also in s 9(2)(b) of the Law Enforcement (Powers and Responsibilities) Act 2002 (NSW) which says: ‘A police officer may enter premises if the police officer believes on reasonable grounds that:… (b) a person has suffered significant physical injury or there is imminent danger of significant physical injury to a person and it is necessary to enter the premises immediately to prevent further significant physical injury or significant physical injury to a person.’
The original question reads a lot like a firefighter sulking over what they perceive to be impingement on their ‘turf’ by a competitor agency. I am a firefighter. I am fully aware of the level of expertise in our field that some of us can boast. But surely our job is just to do the best we can with the scene as we find it when we arrive?
Firefighters and police officers are not parallel, and ‘tit for tat’ hypotheticals aren’t appropriate. Police officers are trained to handle complicated scenarios however they see fit, and regardless of how specialist crews might handle them. If the asker is suggesting better fire scene training for police then great. I don’t know how busy the police are with other matters, but it sounds like a great idea. However it sounds like the asker is suggesting that the police should have their wings clipped by sweeping law, and that in fire incidents they should just sit quietly in their box and run traffic management for the big boys in their red trucks. That isn’t how policing works.
It is frustrating when you are driving a fire appliance to a house fire and you have to slow down because a police car cuts you off and you see them at the house fire.
We should always try to remember that our focus should be on the victims and how they can be best helped. This should include ensuring that the appropriate resources are given the best opportunity to do what they do best. Egos and pissing contests are dangerous and can impede the assistance that the victims require.