A new report has suggested that agencies in charge of emergency services personnel may become more "defensive" about sending out their staff in extreme weather due to the threat of being criminally prosecuted if anything goes wrong.
The Review Report of Severe Weather Events looked at the warnings for and response to extreme events such as Ex-hurricane Ophelia and Storm Emma and stated: "While all public services strive to comply with health and safety legislation and wish to keep their staff safe, it is expected that the trend towards defensiveness will expand across many sectors.
In our view, the primary driver of this trend is the threat of personal criminal liability placed on senior decision-makers in public services.
It also said those responding to people getting into difficulty in severe weather should not differentiate between typical cases and those where someone has put themselves in danger through "reckless behaviour".
The report, prepared by the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management for the Department of Housing, Local Government and Planning, referred to how two organisations had reported in debriefs that their staff had “near misses” while responding to incidents during the storms.
"High wind-speeds make emergency operations during storm conditions hazardous and in an ideal world staff would be withdrawn when very hazardous conditions prevail," it said.
"Where life-saving operations are necessary, emergency services perform a dynamic risk assessment, based on their observations of local conditions allied with forecasts and decide if and how to respond.
However, many organisations, including local authorities are moving towards an increasingly defensive approach to decisions about deployment of personnel including, but not only, emergency services staff.
It said health and safety considerations should not be an automatic barrier to undertaking lifesaving operations or to making roads and other areas safe and that "a balance needs to be found, where senior managers can deploy frontline workers to undertake their statutory functions, while ensuring those same workers are appropriately protected and they are complying with the statutory responsibilities imposed by health and safety legislation".
"We contend that front-line decision-makers need support for the difficult situations they face – not an automatic threat of criminal investigations," it said.
The report also referred to self-endangerment and the "small number of reports of situations where persons ignored safety warnings and engaged in reckless behaviour" during severe weather.
"Services should avoid decisions about 'deserving' and 'non-deserving' calls, despite the perceptions of reckless self-endangerment," it said.