By NZISM Secretary
The headlines over the last month have been dominated by two local stories of tragedy - at Whakaari White Island and the devastating Australian bush fires. What these have in common is the issue of heroism. The helicopter pilots and skippers whose first thought was to turn around and head back to the island to rescue casualties and the firefighters - mostly volunteers who expose themselves daily to massive and volatile risks in order to try and hold the line and save life and property.
So as risk and safety professionals where should we stand on the fine line between heroism and exposure to intolerable risk?
There is a concept in common law known as ‘volenti non fit injuria’ which states that if someone willingly places themselves in a position where harm might result, knowing that some degree of harm might result, they are not able to bring a claim against the other party in tort or delict. Think boxing or other contact sport. But in the corporate/criminal law environment in which health and safety sits there is no provision to voluntarily accept either individual or organisational risk other than through applying the hierarchy of control. This might suggest a more risk averse approach than many at the sharp end would consider reasonable in extreme circumstances. We saw flashes of frustration when the pilots were banned from a further recovery mission whilst the defence and emergency services mobilised their resources.
For volunteers working to save their own and their neighbours property the motivation to expose themselves to huge risks is even stronger - after all, that is why they volunteer. So how do we support a framework for decision making that reflects the unique circumstances of those who run towards danger? Too loose and we could add to the toll of casualties; too restrictive and lives and property that might be saved are lost while we stand by.
Those first responders have to make these impossible choices at short notice and with limited information. For my part I think they have done an outstanding job (particularly NZ Police) and sent the right messages to the community about where to draw the line: saving lives is worth putting trained, equipped and well-led personnel at some increased risk, but where lives are clearly already lost and only replaceable property is involved then the lives and health of first responders must be protected.
Chairman of the NZISM Governance Board