This question relates to the proper use of fire alarm buttons and, apparently flows on from a discussion between my correspondent and others that has taken place on Facebook and then LinkedIn. The gist of the debate is ‘it is ok to tell people to activate a fire alarm for no fire emergencies?’ Specifically:
… in view of a pure legal concept is it correct to train members of the public – generally with little or no understanding of the role of Emergency Wardens – to use a Fire Alarm Activation button to summon the fire brigade in an emergency. I am concerned that training/telling/advising people to use the Fire Alarm Button under the circumstances may lead to a possible Professional or Public Liability (or worse) case if in the worst scenario someone dies because of an incorrect use due to training or incorrect training.
To add some more depth to that, my understanding is that, on one side is the view that if a person is in a building and another person is suffering a medical emergency, if there’s no phone to use, pull the fire alarm which will summon the fire brigade. There’s no fire, but at least help is on its way, fire fighters are trained at least in first aid and in some places (eg Melbourne) are emergency first responders so getting someone will start the entire emergency response process. The counter argument is that calling the fire brigade may delay an ambulance response, as they won’t be called until the fire brigade get there and, relevantly for this blog, it may be illegal.
A suggested scenario is
Mate, if you were suffering from a MCI in a shopping mall or in an office and I didn’t have my phone or means to communicate, i’d hit the scary red button as fire and rescue would be a welcomed sight as I commenced CPR on you… and we needed to raise an alarm (if this was the only means) I only hope you would do the same for me…?
(I infer that MCI means Myocardial infarction).
The critical point for those in favour of using the fire alarm is ‘Worst case; no phone or dead device, person unconscious, next to an MCP, activate device … and await fire rescue as the medical response… using such a unit is meant to raise an alarm. In this case, all other means are not available.’ The counter point is ‘the operation of a RED fire alarm call point is not currently the accepted practice for raising a non-fire related emergency alarm’.
The debate focussed on the Fire and Emergency Services Act 1990 (Qld) s 150B that says:
(1) A person must not—
(a) ask QFES to provide a fire and emergency service at a place unless the service is required at the place; or
(b) give a false alarm of fire.
(2) For subsection (1), a request may be made orally, in writing or by conduct.
* Example of conduct being a request for QFES to provide a fire and emergency service at a place—
* activation of a break-glass alarm
(3) An infringement notice under the State Penalties Enforcement Act 1999 may be issued to a person for a contravention of subsection (1) only if a fire investigation officer is satisfied, having investigated, the person does not have a lawful excuse.
(4) In this section—
fire and emergency service means protection or rescue by QFES of—
(a) persons, property and the environment from fire and hazardous materials emergencies; or
(b) persons trapped in a vehicle or building or otherwise endangered.
Let me start however with the ACT, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. In the ACT all the emergency services including ACT Fire and Rescue and ACT Ambulance are governed by the Emergencies Act 2004 (ACT). Because it is an all agencies Act, it stands to reason that the provision of ‘false alarms’ is also written for all agencies. Section 191 of the ACT legislation says that a ‘person commits an offence if the person — intentionally gives a false alarm of fire, or an emergency or other incident …’ In the circumstances of a medical emergency where no other means of communication is available, pulling the alarm, even if it is marked ‘fire’ is not giving a false alarm as there is indeed an ‘emergency or other incident’.
In the Northern Territory, it is also an offence to give a false alarm of a fire or other emergency (Fire and Emergency Act (NT) s 35). For that Act, Emergency means (s 3) ‘an occurrence, where effective response is within the capacity and resources of the Fire and Rescue Service as determined by the Chief Executive Officer, that:
(a) causes or threatens to cause:
(i) loss of life or property; or
(ii) injury to persons or property or distress to persons; or
(b) in any way endangers the safety of the public of the Territory; or
(c) in any way causes or threatens to cause damage to the environment of the Territory.
The person who pulls the fire alarm may not know what the Chief Executive Officer has determined within the capacity and resources of the Fire and Rescue Service but it would be reasonable to think that turning up and helping with CPR is well within their capacity, and in that context, it is not a false alarm.
Finally, in Western Australia the Fire Brigades Act 1942 (WA) s 59 says that any ‘person who — … wilfully gives a false alarm of fire, a hazardous material incident or an accident or incident requiring a rescue operation’ commits an offence. ‘Rescue operation’ means ‘the rescue and extrication of any person or property endangered as a result of an accident, explosion or other incident’. A person suffering a cardiac arrest where the only person present is doing CPR and has no other means to call or help is calling the fire brigade to help with the ‘extrication’ of the person endangered by the incident.
Now we can say that clearly the point of a fire alarm is to report a fire, but in the circumstances described, at least in the Territories and Western Australia, there is ample room to argue that using them as a last resort for calling medical assistance is not prohibited.
So let us consider that in light of the other states. Calling the fire brigade when that is all you can call would also seem consistent with the modern trend of emergency management – all hazards; all agencies. Imagine you are working late and you see your colleague, the only other person in the building, has collapsed in the tea room. You’ve gone to make a cup of tea so you don’t have your mobile phone. You can hit the fire alarm and start CPR or run back to the office, unlock the door, get your phone, go back to the kitchen etc. Calling the fire brigades is to summon help and we no longer focus on the fact that it is, or is not, their emergency.
To go back to Queensland, ‘fire and emergency service means protection or rescue by QFES of— persons … otherwise endangered’. A person suffering a cardiac arrest is ‘otherwise endangered’.
In New South Wales (Fire Brigades Act 1989 (NSW) s 34), Tasmania (Fire Service Act 1979 (Tas) s 128) and Victoria (Metropolitan Fire Brigades Act 1958 (Vic) s 33), it’s an offence to give a ‘false alarm of fire’ and here, assuming the fire alarm pull signal can only mean ‘fire’ and not ‘help required’ the offence might be committed. I’ve previously discussed the concept of necessity as a defence to a criminal prosecution (see The doctrine of necessity – Explained (January 31, 2017)). I’m sure that no fire brigade, or police force, would object to being summoned in the circumstances so in the incredibly unlikely event that someone did decide to bring a prosecution I’m sure that doctrine would apply here.
In South Australia (Fire and Emergency Services Act 2005 (SA) s 135) a ‘person must not without reasonable excuse— give a false alarm of fire or other emergency’. In this Act, ‘emergency’ is limited to a HAZMAT incident (s 35), not a medical emergency. But the offence is only committed if there was no ‘reasonable excuse’. Given the debate I’m asked to comment on, ‘using such a unit … to raise an alarm. … all other means are not available’ then I would expect any fire brigade, police and/or court to accept that there was a ‘reasonable excuse’.
I note that I haven’t looked at all fire service legislation so I haven’t discussed the Country Fire Authority Act 1958 (Vic), Bushfires Act 1954 (WA) or the Rural Fires Act 1997 (NSW) but the provisions and arguments are going to be similar.
I also haven’t addressed the good Samaritan provisions but they could be applicable here and would provide potential defence – see Good Samaritan legislation – a comparison (February 22, 2017).
Remember the scenario under discussion ‘‘Worst case; no phone or dead device, person unconscious, next to an MCP, activate device … and await fire rescue as the medical response… using such a unit … to raise an alarm…all other means are not available.’
I can’t see that anyone would act against such a person even if, strictly speaking, it appears to be contrary to the legislation in NSW, Tasmania and Victoria. I think the legislation in the other states provides sufficient flexibility to say that the action in those circumstances would not be illegal.
But could a trainer that telling his or her students that ‘lead to a possible Professional or Public Liability (or worse) case if in the worst scenario someone dies because of an incorrect use due to training or incorrect training.’ I can’t imagine what the ‘or worse’ would be. Nor can I imagine how calling for help could lead to an adverse legal result in the circumstances contemplated.
Pulling the alarm and starting CPR is going to be better than looking for a phone or saying ‘sorry buddy, can’t get help’. A focus on ‘but it’s labelled ‘fire alarm’ and it’s not a fire’ and worse ‘I’m afraid I may get sued or prosecuted and that’s more important that trying to save your life’ is much more likely to get adverse criticism from a court.
One the participants in the debate wrote ‘Mate, if you were suffering from a MCI in a shopping mall or in an office and I didn’t have my phone or means to communicate, i’d hit the scary red button as fire and rescue would be a welcomed sight as I commenced CPR on you’
I suppose one has to think that in a shopping mall someone’s going to have a phone so it may be the case that in a shopping mall other options are available, but to use my example – ‘you are working late and you see your colleague, the only other person in the building, has collapsed in the tea room. You’ve gone to make a cup of tea so you don’t have your mobile phone …’ then ‘i’d hit the scary red button’ too and I would not expect any legal consequences to flow from that action.