Firefighting commanders submit “excuse of responsibility”

Bitter stand off may have to be decided by courts

The start of Portugal’s nail-biting ‘summer fire season’ has been thrown a curved ball by roughly 100 firefighting commanders, representing 456 associations stations, requesting “excuse of responsibility”.

“Excuse of responsibility” has become a popular expression in recent times. It is used by professions – particularly in the health sector – whose members are labouring under impossible conditions and realise that mistakes may be made. Requesting excuse of responsibility can protect them in the case of legal action. 

And it is legal action that these commanders fear. They have seen one of their own, Augusto Arnaut, accused of causing the deaths of 63 of the people who died in the fires of Pedrógão Grande in 2017, but no one in ANEPC – the national authority for emergency and civil protection (which oversaw firefighting operations) faces any kind of accusation at all.

As commanders explain, responsibility for failings should be shared, not lumped wholly on the shoulders of commanders who are never in control of everything.

António Nunes of the League of Portuguese firefighters told SIC television news: “We can’t interpret the law that the commander is responsible for all rescue and recovery in a theatre of operations when means arrive late, arrive in insufficient numbers, don’t arrive in the quality that they should…”

The commanders submitted their request a month ago. It is only now that it seems to be being talked about, with the Minister for Interior Administration actually telling reporters yesterday that the submission, in the form of a document, “has no juridical value”. It is not ‘legal or Constitutional’, he said. Being a commander “means being in charge/ having responsibility…”

ANEPC is said to be ‘analysing’  the commanders’ position – while the League has let it be known that ANEPC, whatever it decides, “is not the boss of firefighters”.

“If necessary, this will have to be decided in court”, said António Nunes. “We don’t recognise any legitimacy of ANEPC to cut away at our rights or the authority of firefighting commanders. But if ANEPC wants to meet with us, the situation could be resolved in five minutes. All that needs to be done is change the wording of two phrases in the Operational Directive (which establishes the organisation and responsibility of those making up firefighting response)”.

A comment piece in Correio da Manhã today considers that firefighting is “one of the most noble missions in our society; pure altruism. There are always several reasons for something going wrong. The community cannot point the finger at firefighters who have always performed their role well”. It is essential that the League of Firefighters sorts this out fast, says the paper – particularly as the country is on high alert for wildfires, in a state of unprecedented drought.

One positive sign is that António Nunes has already had an audience with President Marcelo in Belém. The League had requested audiences with both Marcelo and prime minister António Costa, but the latter is currently ‘otherwise engaged’, facing a motion of confidence in parliament today (which will be vetoed).

natasha.donn@portugalresident.com