The Federal Department of Justice adopted a flexible approach towards resolving a difficult OHS case in the Northwest Territories. Rather than prosecuting an emotionally charged and controversial case, the Department withdrew charges after entering into an "Alternative Measures-Like Agreement" with the Defendant. This effectively put an end to the prosecution and allowed limited resources to be put directly into improving safety.
In March of 2005 two firefighters died while fighting a fire at a building supply center. These were the first serious injuries, let alone fatalities, for the northern municipality and its fire division. The deaths attracted national attention. On March 10, 2006, one year after the fire, the Workers' Compensation Board (WCB) brought charges under the Northwest Territories Safety Act against the municipality, the Fire Chief and a Deputy Fire Chief who had been in command at the fire scene. The charges alleged that the municipality and the Deputy Fire Chief:
had not maintained their establishment so that the health and safety of persons were not endangered; and
had not ensured that each worker was adequately instructed in the safe performance of his duties.
After a series of extensive negotiations, the municipality and the WCB reached an arrangement similar to an "Alternative Measures Agreement" to address the issues raised by the fire and the fatalities while avoiding further court proceedings. The Territorial Court of the Northwest Territories approved the agreement and the remaining Safety Act charges were stayed.
The terms of the Agreement included a deposit of $300,000 in trust, to be used to train firefighters over the next 10 years. These funds are in addition to funds that the municipality would have otherwise budgeted for firefighter training. In addition, an expert panel was chosen by the municipality and the WCB to examine the competency levels of the Deputy Fire Chief and develop a training program to supplement any deficiencies. An extensive assessment was completed with respect to the Deputy Fire Chief and no training deficiencies were identified by the external panel; however, all firefighting officers in command positions will receive additional training in incident command as well as in other areas.
The municipality and the WCB issued a joint media statement with respect to the fire. This statement contained a quote from the municipality's mayor who spoke to the enhancements that were being made to the municipality's fire division safety program. A copy of the Agreement accompanied the media release, including a minute-by-minute description of the events which lead up to the two fatalities. Accordingly, the public was made aware of the details surrounding both the fire and the Agreement.
This Agreement represents a creative alternative to what would have been a lengthy, expensive and, for many of the participants, painful trial. The solution fashioned under this Agreement provided a quicker resolution, addressed the concerns of both the municipality and the WCB, devoted resources to improving safety, and enhanced public confidence through full-disclosure of the facts and the process involved.