Editorial – Like a House on Fire

It takes a certain something to put your life in danger?day in, day out?to rescue others. Police and firefighters are the two most obvious examples that come to mind.

And when those who lay their lives on the line are volunteers, there’s an added element. These are people who give a damn; people willing to risk their own safety for the good of their communities, without pay and sometimes at their own financial expense.

Society owes them an immeasurable debt of thanks on so many levels, but the decision makers at Aviva Insurance seem to think they’re the ones who are owed.

Even as Canadian insurance companies are raking in record profits ($4.2 billion in one recent year), Aviva has decided to sue two volunteer fire departments in Nova Scotia for failing to stop a house fire.

In July 2007, the North Sydney and Frenchvale volunteer departments attended a house fire in North Sydney. Firefighters put out a blaze in a back bedroom and advised the occupants, Larry and Diane Stonehouse, to find other lodgings. But the fire broke out again some six hours later, destroying the house.

After nine months in hotels, Aviva compensated the couple an estimated $400,000?and the insurance company is now trying to recoup the money from the volunteer fire departments.

(It should be noted that, as the CBC reports, the Stonehouses are named in the lawsuit because their names are on the policy. However, Diane Stonehouse has told reporters she and her husband are not behind the suit.)

Aviva is suing for damages and court costs. Court documents show the company claims the volunteer fire departments ?failed to properly protect [the] home after a fire broke out in a bedroom.?

In a ChronicleHerald report, ?the suit alleges the fire departments failed to properly train their members; adequately equip firefighters; properly extinguish the blaze and search for possible hot spots; and remain at the scene to ensure the fire was out.?

Not that the volunteer firefighters didn’t do the best job they could with the training and equipment they had. Not that they failed to respond to an alarm, or were wilfully negligent in their duties. Simply that, as unpaid volunteers putting themselves at risk, their efforts weren’t good enough for Aviva.

But there are no guarantees, especially when it comes to emergency situations, a fact Aviva should know well.

And being in the insurance business, It’s surprising the company has missed another crucial point: if volunteer fire departments decide the risk of being sued just isn’t worth it, the lives and property they do save may just go up in smoke?something that, in the long run, could cost Aviva more than it realizes.