Firefighters told to 'use common sense'

FIREFIGHTERS have been ordered to use "common sense" during emergencies after health and safety rules prevented them rescuing a mother who lay dying in a mine shaft for six hours.

Fire services will be told to follow new "non-bureaucratic" guidelines and take a "sensible" approach to hazardous incidents under a new policy unveiled by the Health and Safety Executive.

HSE chiefs said the guidelines aimed to ensure firefighters could do their jobs properly without employers flouting safety legislation. Brigade unions welcomed the ruling, saying a balance had to be struck between safety rules and allowing fire crews to do their job.

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But one MP called for a complete overhaul of safety guidelines and their impact on rescues after the conclusion of a fatal accident inquiry into the death of Alison Hume.

The 44-year-old, from Galston in Ayrshire, spent six hours at the bottom of a pit because Strathclyde Fire and Rescue was banned from using rope equipment to rescue members of the public.

Mrs Hume, who suffered head and chest injuries after plunging 60ft, died shortly after being brought to the surface from the disused shaft 120 yards from her home. She had suffered a heart attack as she was finally being pulled clear of the shaft by mountain rescue experts. The inquiry is continuing.

Her family hit out at the fire service for failing to get Mrs Hume out of the shaft, after senior fire officers ruled they did not have "proper procedures" in place to lift her out.

The case has sparked criticism of a "health and safety culture" among rescue services and calls for a shake-up of existing rules. The new guidelines make it clear that fire services do not need to eliminate all risks in rescue situations.

They are the HSE's first detailed guidelines for rescue services, although it insists they have not been drawn up as a result of Mrs Hume's death. It said it wanted to help mercy workers tackle "difficult moral dilemmas".

Fire brigades and union leaders have backed the new rules, which acknowledge the principle that managers and firefighters need to make decisions in "dangerous, fast-moving, emotionally charged and pressurised situations".

The HSE has urged fire and rescue authorities to introduce firm incident guidelines that:

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&149 assess the context in which they operate, so that the authorities can deliver an effective and realistic service, and enable staff to take appropriate care for their own, their colleagues' and the public's health and safety;

• are based on robust, proportionate, carefully considered and non-bureaucratic risk assessments, which identify significant hazards, set out safe systems of work, and are effectively implemented.

The new rules, expected to inform detailed guidelines being worked on by fire service leaders, said that, although the sector was bound by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act, employers' duties were "not absolute and each is qualified by the test of what is reasonably practicable".

Judith Hackitt, who chairs the HSE, said: "We want to clear up any misunderstandings – a proper approach to health and safety does not prevent firefighters from doing their job. Firefighters perform a unique and indispensable role. It is part of their job to intervene in dangerous situations to protect people and property.

"The law expects that they will themselves be protected as far as is reasonably practicable – but in fast moving situations, they must exercise judgment about what is reasonable and what is not. Some actions that firefighters have to take to protect people inevitably put themselves at some risk."

Charlie McCusker, a senior partner at the law firm that employed Mrs Hume, said: "These guidelines would appear to say that, although there is a legal duty on the fire service to protect its workers, that does not prevent them from doing their job.

"My understanding of what happened in Galston was that the firefighters who arrived at the scene felt it was safe to go down the mine shaft. The problem was that a rescue wasn't carried out for some reason. I don't understand why that happened."

Kilmarnock and Loudoun MSP Willie Coffey said: "The publication provides a useful restatement of what fire services need to do to comply with health and safety legislation, and that it is welcome.

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"However, the fatal accident inquiry being carried out into the death of Alison Hume is throwing up significant issues. In this incident, the delay involved in complying with health and safety requirements was significant.

"The guidance needs to be clear about the implications of delay as against proceeding with less than optimum personnel or resources."

Roddy Robertson, a spokesman for the Fire Brigades Union in Scotland, said: "One of the main things for us is the need to strike a balance between health and safety and the job the public expects us to do. There is work ongoing to draw up new guidelines so there is consistency when dealing with all kinds of different incidents around Britain. The principles that have been agreed with the HSE will underpin that work."