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The jurors, when interviewed after the mock trial, indicated that the refusal of the fire district to implement the policy of downgraded responses when no true emergency exists (when the immediate situation, the dumpster fire, was apparently under control), despite several recommendations by the fire department's training officer, played by Williamsville, NY, Fire Department Assistant Chief (and certified fire instructor) Thomas Ratzel, was a key factor in establishing liability.
The mock trial also showed the powerful impact of expert-witness testimony, including that of an accident-reconstruction expert, who demonstrated the scientific certainty of speed determination at the time of impact from evidence obtained at the scene after the accident. The accident reconstructionist was played by nationally certified fire instructor John V. Fildes, a retired senior accident investigator for the Amherst, NY, Police Department.
Retired Ithaca, NY, Fire Chief Edward Olmstead (also a nationally certified fire instructor) played the expert witness on fire department operations, citing several National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and other standards to establish that the actions of the fire chief and fire district fell below the standard of care expected in the fire service.
The testimony of the driver and the company officer showed that, while the ladder driver had an otherwise unblemished record to that point, that he did not follow department SOPs requiring full stops at all controlled intersections (against the control) prior to entering the intersection. It was also shown that the company officer failed to conduct twice-annual driver refresher training, yet submitted training paperwork stating that it had been completed.
The fire chief testified further that he had repeatedly submitted training and operational suggestions to the Board of Fire Commissioners, including a protocol for a downgraded response when no true life emergency existed. The fire commissioner testified that the board refused to implement the proposals, because it could affect recruitment and retention if members "couldn't use lights and sirens."
Following the trial, the jurors (who had been selected randomly from the audience) were polled for their verdict; the jury unanimously found for the plaintiff and awarded $15 million in damages. Wilbur then conducted an evaluation of the several legal and operational issues raised by the trial, including the culpability of not only the authority having jurisdiction for its actions (and failures to act), but also the failures of the officers and drivers to follow training and operational guidelines.
While the trial and courtroom were fictional, the potential reality of the circumstances left the attendees with a greater appreciation for the need for good training, sound education and effective leadership.
The author expresses appreciation for all who assisted with the mock trial, including the bystander witnesses played by Sue Olmstead and Betty Kortlang; FirehouseÂ® Contributing Editor Tom Shand, who acted as the mock trial judge; Chief Fred Theadore of the Circleville, NY, Fire Department; Commissioner John Horan of the Circleville, NY, Fire District; and the members of the audience who acted as jurors.
Michael Wilbur adds: I would like to thank Mark Butler for writing this recap of the mock trial at my request.
Although it was a mock trial, I can tell you it felt very real, as I sat in the defendant's chair sweating and feeling sick. As a defendant, you cannot say or do anything as the prosecution presents its case. Many times, I wanted to say something to the prosecution in rebuttal, but I could not. Honestly, it was the most helpless that I have ever felt in my life. As the defendant, it was equally frustrating to be allowed to answer only the questions asked of me. I had much more information that would have been helpful in my defense, but I could answer questions only in the narrowest of ways. Yes, this was a mock trial, but from my perspective, it sure did not feel that way.
One important teaching point was the "paper" training, as Mark referred to it. How many fire departments, fire officers, training officers or others are signing off on training that never occurred or that did not occur as it was written in the training report? This is dangerous, as ultimately they will be found out and could pay a horrible price.