Deaths of firefighters ‘could have been prevented’

The funeral cortege of Ewan Williamson in Edinburgh. Picture: Dan Phillips
The funeral cortege of Ewan Williamson in Edinburgh. Picture: Dan Phillips
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THE deaths of some firefighters in the UK since 2004 “could and should have been prevented”, a report has claimed.

The study – commissioned by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) – looked into the total of 14 deaths in the past ten years and warned “good practice” had sometimes been ignored.

Compiled by the University of Stirling, it said: “Unnecessary deaths happened in avoidable circumstances.”

FBU general-secretary Matt Wrack has called for urgent talks and said the report should “focus minds” on fire safety. He said: “Firefighters should expect to be able to go home to their families after their day’s work. They do not go to work to die.

“We assess the risks and take carefully planned action to rescue people, to deal with incidents and make communities safe. Our members have the right to demand the best possible procedures, training, equipment and resources to enable us to do our job safely, effectively and professionally. That is not too much to ask.”

The university report calls for the direct and indirect role of central and senior local government and brigade managers in firefighter fatalities to be ­addressed.

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It also provides detailed ­recommendations to tackle structural and functional failures that threaten firefighters’ health and safety and recommends action to improve risk assessment, risk management and training.

Firefighter Ewan Williamson, 35, died in July 2009 after becoming trapped while tackling a blaze at the Balmoral Bar on Dalry Road, Edinburgh. A court case into claims the fire service breached health and safety rules over the incident is due to get under way in the coming weeks.

Mr Williamson became trapped in a toilet on the ground floor of the bar while tackling the blaze – from which 20 people were rescued.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service denies three charges under the Health and Safety at Work Act, including a claim there was a failure to prioritise Mr Williamson’s rescue.

Meanwhile, across the UK, 13 other firefighters also died tackling blazes.

“This report demonstrates a need for investment, not cuts to the fire and rescue service,” Mr Wrack added. “Budget cuts mean reductions in training, staffing, equipment and fire stations and continued operational duties of older firefighters. This will lead inevitably to further fatalities in the future.”

The report, entitled Firefighter Fatalities at fires in the UK 2004-2013: voices from the fireground, was produced by Professor Andrew Watterson, of Stirling University’s Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group (OEHRG). He concluded: “Good practice has sometimes been ignored.”

Mr Wrack said the FBU was acutely aware all risks cannot be removed but argues they can be ­reduced by positive action from fire services, local and central government, and regulatory and inspection bodies.

“It is important we begin to identify the role played by central government, senior local government and brigade managers. These are the people ultimately responsible for the laws, budgets, staffing, systems, training, equipment and resources our members rely on,” said Mr Wrack.

He added that the report should not be left for another day. “Fourteen firefighters have died at fires in the past decade. We owe it to them to review all our systems now. I call on government to treat this report with the same urgency that it would if 14 Members of Parliament weren’t going home to their loved ones.”