Issue of 'Firefighters Charged With Manslaughter' Discussed at Expo

Responders at all levels have been charged, and in some cases convicted, of manslaughter despite their overall mission to help – not harm – others. Curt Varone, Dir., Fire Service Division, LL RMI discussed how this can happen, during his session at Firehouse Expo 2010: “Firefighters Charged With Manslaugher!”

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Varone said he has found 12 such cases that have occurred since 2001, not counting intentional acts such as firefighter arson resulting in death. “We’re talking about accidental deaths,” he specified.

Varone noted that this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon, either. For example, a UK firefighter was recently charged for spooking cows during a response, resulting in the trampling death of a farmer. In another example, a UK fire official was indicted over a fire response in which several other firefighters – including his own son – were killed.

Part of Varone’s discussion included a criminal law overview, in which he explained that both an act – and an act of omission – can be a crime for those with a legal duty to act.

To illustrate, he highlighted a recent U.S. case in which a pair of New York EMTs allegedly refused assistance to a pregnant mother in respiratory distress because they were on a break. The woman died and the EMTs faced harsh criticism from the mayor and the media but were not charged.

According to Varone, there were additional facts:

The pair were dispatcher EMTs, but were in uniform; they weren’t asked to look at the woman, only told someone was ill; they did not have PPE or medical equipment on hand; and one of the EMTs did call in the incident for response.

“What should they have done?” Varone posed to the class. Would the answer be different if they had been entirely off duty, rather than on break? If they had been off duty and impaired?

Varone went on to look at numerous case studies and to make comparisons. Many of these involved apparatus crashes, POV crashes and ambulance crashes. Anther case involved horseplay – that of Virginia EMT Joshua Martin, who shocked and inadvertently killed his partner with a defibrillator in 2005.

Another top discussion involved supervisors being charged with manslaughter as a result of their employees’ death.

Varone recounted the case of Alan G. Baird III of the Lairdsville (N.Y.) Fire Department, who was charged with involuntary manslaughter and convicted of criminally negligent homicide after the 2001 training death of a recruit.

He also highlighted the case of the Thirty Mile wildfire, in which four firefighters were killed in Washington in 2001, and their supervisor was charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2006 - partly as a result of the families’ ongoing lobbying.

“It took them five years but they finally got what they what they were looking for,” Varone said. He suggests that while the public tends to think of lawsuits as money-driven, the root of lawsuits like these are rage and grief.

In the end, Varone said there are some take-away lessons to be gleaned from these cases. For one, in the aftermath of such events, public uproar has to be expected. Does it matter what kind of person the responder is or was? Absolutely, Varone said. If they were known to be ethical, that can affect the public perception and outcome.

However, convictions were likelier in cases involving issues such as alcohol, drugs or horseplay.

“Some factors can make a case indefensible,” Varone said.