Alison Hume inquiry: Calls grow for hero fire chief to resign
THE fire chief whose force was slammed for its “inexplicable” failure to prevent the death of a mother of two who fell down a mineshaft is facing calls to quit as the dead woman’s family posed fresh questions about his handling of the tragedy.
Lawyer Alison Hume suffered “survivable” injuries in 2008 after plunging almost 15 metres down a collapsed mineshaft, but died as fire commanders above her delayed action over the best way to get her out.
A damning report by Scotland’s HM Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Authorities yesterday concluded that “it ought to have been clear” to commanders who attended the incident in July 2008 that the woman’s condition would deteriorate the longer she remained in the shaft.
As with a fatal accident inquiry last year, the latest report found that working firefighters who wanted to help her immediately were told not to do so, as their senior officers decided to follow policy guidelines which ruled out firemen carrying out risky line rescues.
They instead called for a Police Mountain Rescue team who took three hours to arrive at the scene and, the inquiry report notes, then had to face exactly the same risks in retrieving Mrs Hume as the firefighters would have done.
Mrs Hume, whose body temperature had slumped due to her ordeal, died soon after.
Strathclyde Fire and Rescue’s chief officer, Brian Sweeney responded to the report yesterday by reiterating his apology to the dead solicitor’s family. But Mr Sweeney – who is seen as a leading contender for run the new Scottish-wide fire service planned by the Scottish Government – is now facing calls to quit.
Hugh Cowan, the stepfather of Mrs Hume, claimed the fire chief had failed to be clear on the fire service’s failings until both the fatal accident inquiry and yesterday’s report had forced his hand.
“The buck stops with him,” said Mr Cowan, 69, of Ayr. “He is in charge of the men. He should take the blame.”
Mr Cowan said that Mrs Hume’s family had been presented with a version of events of the tragedy at a meeting in August 2009, involving Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, the procurator fiscal and Strathclyde Police.
He said: “We were reasonably happy with what we heard, although we were obviously not happy that Alison had died. But just before the fatal accident inquiry, when I was given access to statements, I learned that, contrary to what we had been told, four different fire commanders had been in charge during the attempted rescue. Previously, we had been told that just one fire officer had been in charge throughout the night.
“Mr Sweeney should be prepared to come out in public and explain why this family was told a pack of lies. If he does not do that, he should resign,” he said.
Politicians last night also said Mr Sweeney and other fellow officers responsible for the tragedy should go.
Scottish Labour’s shadow cabinet secretary for justice, Lewis Macdonald MSP, said: “There is now no doubt that wrong decisions were taken that contributed to, and may indeed have caused, Alison Hume’s tragic death. The position of those responsible for those fundamentally flawed decisions is no longer tenable. The family have every justification for demanding that senior officials take responsibility for those mistakes and act accordingly.” For the Conservatives, Margaret Mitchell MSP said: “I know from speaking to firefighters that their hands are being tied by what they consider politically correct legislation on health and safety. This leaves them being told by their superiors that they unable to respond to certain incidents, resulting in the kind of fiasco this report has highlighted.”
Yesterday’s report, commissioned by the Scottish Government and written by HM Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Authorities Steven Torrie, sets out in clear detail how fire service responsibility for the rescue attempt was passed around during the crucial hours as Mrs Hume lay stricken in the mine shaft.
At first, a watch commander who arrived at the scene with a fire crew began attempts to lift her out of the mineshaft, after having formulated their own risk assessment as to the danger they could get into. However, he was over-ruled by a more senior officer who turned up at the scene who, a few hours later, was then replaced by a third commander. After that, another more senior commander also arrived.
Mr Torrie’s report sets out clearly that it was the decision to suspend the initial rescue attempt which was the “defining moment” of the incident.
Mr Torrie said another key factor had been a policy decision by Strathclyde Fire and Rescue effectively to rule out using lines in rescue attempts earlier that year, for reasons of safety.
The policy decision by the organisation, under Mr Sweeney’s control, “effectively removed the ability of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue staff to adapt existing equipment and skills to perform specialist rescues in a way which was very much routine within the fire and rescue service in general”.
The report recommended that in future the fire service “should explicitly recognise the need to adapt and improvise in unusual and difficult to define circumstances”.
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