Firemen stand by as rules 'prevent' rescue

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A WOMAN lay injured at the bottom of a mineshaft for six hours because health and safety rules banned firefighters from rescuing her.

• Picture: TSPL

Crews could only listen to Alison Hume's cries for help because regulations said their equipment was for saving themselves but not members of the public, an inquiry into her death heard yesterday.

The revelation sparked fierce criticism of the "health and safety culture" among rescue services, with the Fire Brigades Union saying crews were being put in "an impossible position".

Mrs Hume, a mother of two, was trapped 60ft below ground after she fell down the disused mineshaft 120 yards from her home in Galston, Ayrshire.

She was found when daughter Jane, then 17, went to look for her after she failed to return home from visiting relatives. Fire crews were called to the scene and a fatal accident inquiry heard that a firefighter had volunteered to be lowered down to rescue her.

But a memo from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue chiefs four months earlier had banned the use of rope equipment for lifting members of the public to safety, the inquiry was told.

Mountain rescue experts eventually freed Mrs Hume six hours later, but she died after suffering a heart attack as she was taken to the surface.

Christopher Rooney, the first senior fire officer at the scene, admitted it would have been possible for his crew to have rescued Mrs Hume from the shaft, had it not been for the memo.

During the hearing, solicitor Gregor Forbes asked Mr Rooney: "On the basis of the manpower and equipment that you had available, is it your view it would it would have been possible for the firefighters to have brought the person to the surface before the mountain rescue team?"

He replied: "Yes, I believe so."

The now-retired fire officer said the memo had been circulated around Strathclyde Fire and Rescue stations in March 2008.

Mr Forbes said: "Your position is that, while you were supplied with safe working-at-height equipment, while this could be used to bring up firefighters, it could not be used to bring up a member of the public."

Mr Rooney, 51, told the inquiry at Kilmarnock Sheriff Court: "Yes, that's correct."

All 18 firefighters at the scene were trained and capable of using the equipment, he added.

Of the memo four months before the incident, he was then asked: "If Mrs Hume had fallen down the shaft on 13 March, instead of 26 July, you could have used a lowering line?"

Mr Rooney replied: "We could have."

Firefighter Alexander Dunn, who spent four hours with Mrs Hume at the bottom of the shaft after being lowered down to help her, told the inquiry the time it took to rescue her was "excessive".

He claimed the rescue should have been quicker, pointing out "the length of time it took to get Mrs Hume out of the hole". He said he had noted the woman's injuries, including an apparently swollen stomach and signs of a head injury, and wanted to "just pull her out".

Asked if he thought it could have been done more quickly, he said: "Yes."

Mrs Hume, 44, who was separated from her husband and worked as a solicitor with Renfrewshire legal firm McCusker McElroy & Co, went missing in the early hours of 26 July.

After being found, she could be heard moaning from the bottom of the mineshaft for several hours, but grew quieter as she was finally taken out.

The inquiry was shown video footage of crews at the scene of the accident, where Mrs Hume is thought to have strayed off a path at the site of the former Goatfoot pit.

Mr Rooney said he arrived at the scene at 2:30am, but was hampered by darkness and mist reducing visibility in places to just 3ft.

The woman's family led him to the ten-metre diameter hole that was partially concealed by bushes and long grass. "We heard Alison moaning and making distressed noises", he said.

A firefighter was lowered down with oxygen and first-aid equipment, but, because of the rule, could only wait with her until the mountain rescue team arrived.

Mrs Hume's family have already criticised the rescue attempt. Her stepfather, Hugh Cowan, 67, and mother Margaret have demanded to know why the rescue took six hours.

A senior MSP yesterday criticised the increasing imposition of health and safety rules on front-line rescuers. Scottish Tory deputy leader Murdo Fraser said: "Of course, the safety of rescue workers has to be a major consideration. But a strict adherence to health and safety rules in such circumstances should not prevent life-saving action."

John Duffy, Scottish secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said front-line firefighters were being put in an impossible position.

He said: "I know exactly what these firefighters would have been thinking. They would have wanted to get down there and rescue this woman. That is what they do. The sad truth is that training for specialist skills such as these is in chaos, with some forces having capability and others not.

"This has to be sorted out. It is putting firefighters in an impossible situation."

• Clive Fairweather: Losing a life to safety concerns 'is a monstrous rebuff to us all'

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