Regional districts: operational decisions are not protected from liability

Disclaimer: The following is intended for educational purposes, and not as legal advice.

Policy decisions are immune from liability, but operational decisions are not.

To understand how this applies to regional services, it is important to understand the legal distinction between policy decisions and operational decisions. “The dividing line between ‘policy’ and ‘operation’ is difficult to fix, yet it is essential that it be done” (Just v. British Columbia).

Generally, operational decisions relate to “the practical implementation of the formulated policies, it mainly covers the performance or carrying out of a policy” (Brown v. British Columbia). That is, policy decisions relate to the course of action chosen (i.e. policy direction), while operational decisions relate to how that course of action is carried out.

Some examples from court judgements may help clarify:

  • A system of lighthouse inspection is policy (including frequency of inspections or even no inspections); performing a specific inspection of a lighthouse is operational.
  • A system of ice removal from roads is policy (including choosing to implement a summer schedule in November); removing ice on a specific section of road is operational.
  • A system to identify and remove hazardous trees along roadsides is policy (even if it is unwritten, inspection is done by a civil servant who is not an arborist, and only a fraction of the identified trees are removed); carrying out the identification and removal of hazardous trees is operational (given the budget and resources allocated).
  • A system of danger rock removal from highways is policy (including decisions to postpone treatment); treatment of highway sections with falling rock danger is operational.
  • A system to respond to fires is policy (including dispatch, use of maps, and use of professional and volunteer firefighters); following that system in response to a specific fire is operational.

To minimize liability risk, operational decisions must be reasonable. “Where, ultimately, the contested decision is operational, the standard tort analysis applies, and the requisite standard of care is one of reasonableness” (Gobin v. British Columbia).

My understanding of how this applies to dispatch Option C: Policy decisions include choosing to use a call centre, and the choice of procedures for (i) the call centre to handle calls, (ii) volunteer dispatchers to follow in response to calls, (iii) use of the locally-developed mapping tool to locate incidents, and (iv) use of locally-implemented VHF repeaters. Operational decisions relate to how those items are carried out. The most important actions to limit liability risk would be following the procedures established, within the limits of the policy decisions and resources allocated.

The PRRD can set any reasonable policy without liability risk because policy decisions are protected from liability ( Our volunteer dispatchers, fire fighters, and first responders are also immune from liability when conducting their operational duties ( One of the call centres we have checked out handles emergency calls for other communities in BC. Procedures can be established to ensure that the policies can be operationally carried out. Based on my understanding, the Option C dispatch system simply does not create a significant liability risk.