Today’s correspondent is concerned about

… an increase of volunteer fire brigades (nation-wide) now getting involved in social media [and] what legal responsibilities falls on the brigades for the information posted?

For instance, if the brigade posts every time there is a fire ban, but misses one – is there now an obligation to provide this information? Or if the information provided around legality of when a fire can be lit were to be incorrect?

I understand that each organisation will have its own internal policy regarding social media, but more and more people are looking to social media for information, so when does basic PR become a legal obligation?

Putting aside the legal obligations one can imagine the press after a fire with a person saying ‘we weren’t warned, I checked the Kickatinalong fire brigade web site and it said nothing’.  That’s not a good look even if there is no legal impact and even if because, at the time, the volunteer webmaster was out fighting the fire.  And is to ensure consistent messaging that the modern mantra is for a ‘single point of truth’ to ensure messaging is consistent.  A prudent webmaster may, therefore only put up local good news stories with a link on the webpage ‘For current warnings and bans, click here’.  But, assuming that is not how it’s done, what might be the legal outcomes.

Like so many questions asked here (and asked of the law) there is no simple answer, the answer depends on all the circumstances.  I think the key question would be (and here I paraphrase the High Court of Australia from the unrelated case of Rogers v Whitaker [1992] HCA 58) I think there could be legal consequences if in all the circumstances of the particular case, a reasonable person would expect to be able to, and did, rely on the information on the brigade website or the brigade was reasonably aware that a particular person was relying on that information.

If a brigade website promised to provide up to date information and did consistently so that locals turn to the brigade rather than the Bureau of Meteorology or the state website for information then that may create an expectation that the information will be correct and up to date and also establish that they rely on that information.

People may know that weather forecasts come for the Bureau and fire bans are imposed at a level higher than brigade so may appreciate that the local website is a ‘mirror’ of those other sites and they really need to look to the BoM or the State Headquarters.  But it may be brigades that issue fire permits (see RFS operating ‘out of area’
(February 11, 2019). Even if it were not reasonable to expect a brigade page to be fully up to date with bans, one might reasonably look to the local brigade for advice on whether a fire can be lit.  In that case the legal issue would not so much be some action against the brigade, but a person who was charged with say lighting a fire without a permit could argue that he or she had an honest and reasonable belief that a permit was not required because he or she asked, or checked with the local brigade, and got the wrong information but in circumstances it was reasonable to rely on that information.  In that case he or she may be acquitted of the offence with which they have been charged.

If someone specifically asks – is there a fire ban today? What is the fire danger rating today? Can I light without a permit today? – then the brigade knows they are being relied upon and they know they need to be correct because it has been brought to their attention that a person is relying on their advice.

Without going through all the questions of whether there is a duty to warn, and whether it was a failure to warn rather than, say the fire, that caused any losses (and those answers depend ‘on all the circumstances’) one cannot say what the consequences would be, if any.  Certainly the most likely is that if the brigade page has wrong information about the status of fire bans and the need for permits, a person may be acquitted of any charges related to lighting a fire contrary to a ban.


So, when does basic PR become a legal obligation?  When you might reasonably expect that people will rely on the information, and act on it to their own detriment.  When the information is more than good news stories there’s an obligation to try and be correct.  A cavalier attitude to accuracy will never end well.