Yellowknife, WCB strike deal after two firefighters killed

Alternative measures prevent unwieldy trial in N.W.T.

On March 17, 2005, two Yellowknife firefighters died fighting a fire at a building supply centre. These were the first fatalities, let alone serious injuries, for the City of Yellowknife and its fire division. The deaths attracted national attention.

Rather than go to court, the city and the Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) used an alternative measures agreement to address the problems constructively. But it didn’t start out that way.

One year after the fire, in March 2006, the WCB charged the city, the fire chief and a deputy fire chief, who had been in command at the fire scene, under the Northwest Territories Safety Act and regulations. The city, fire chief and deputy fire chief were charged with:

•not maintaining their establishment so that the health and safety of persons were not endangered; and

•not ensuring each worker had been adequately instructed in the safe performance of duties.

As well, the WCB safety officer issued a series of orders under s. 12 of the act, which the city complied with. The charges against the fire chief were stayed and, if not recommenced within one year, they disappear and it is as though the charges were never laid.

The charges against the city and the deputy fire chief were proceeding towards trial but, after extensive negotiations, the city and WCB reached an alternative measures agreement. On Oct. 9, 2006, the Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories approved the agreement and the remaining Safety Act charges were stayed.

The agreement came into effect immediately and the bulk of it is in force for a year. Within that time:

•The city will deposit $300,000 in trust to train firefighters over the next 10 years. These funds are in addition to the city’s normal firefighter training budget. The training must be approved by the WCB, and the city must report to the WCB every six months on the use of these funds, until they have been expended.

•An expert panel chosen by the city and the WCB will examine the deputy fire chief and, if additional training is required, the city will arrange for it, but the cost of that training is not to come out of the $300,000. After training, the expert panel will evaluate the deputy fire chief again. The city will act upon that evaluation as it would any other employee evaluation.

•All officers at the fire department will get additional training in incident command and other subjects.

•The city will provide the WCB with all its investigation reports of the March 17, 2005 fire.

As well, for the purposes of the agreement, the city agreed it was responsible for the fire division’s response to the March 2005 fire. The agreement contained an acknowledgement that it was not an admission of legal liability and could not be used in any other proceeding.

The city and the WCB issued a joint media statement in which the city acknowledged its responsibility. The statement quoted Yellowknife’s mayor on the enhancements being made to the city’s fire division safety program.

A copy of the alternative measures agreement accompanied the media release, including the first public description of events leading up to the two fatalities.

If, at any point during the year, the WCB determines the city or the deputy fire chief are not honouring their commitments under the agreement, the WCB can ask the attorney general to recommence charges against either or both of them. On Oct. 9, 2007, one year after the charges were stayed, these charges too will disappear if nothing has been done to recommence them.

The alternative measures agreement represented a creative alternative to what would have been a long, expensive and painful trial.

A conviction under the Safety Act carries a maximum penalty of a $500,000 fine and imprisonment for one year. The alternative measures agreement provided a quicker resolution, while addressing the concerns of the city and the WCB.

Glenn Tait is a partner in the labour and employment practice group in the Yellowknife office of McLennan Ross. He can be reached at gtait@mross.com or (867) 766-7676.

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