Hands off single fire service, senior officer warns politicians

The new single fire service must be free from direct political control, according to one of Scotland’s fire chiefs.

Brian Sweeney, head of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, has said the new single force needs to be led by a chief officer without political interference.

Scotland’s regional brigades are being merged into a nationwide emergency service next April. Alasdair Hay, who is currently acting chief fire officer in Tayside, will be the first chief fire officer of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service and is expected to start in the autumn.

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In a lecture at Glasgow University last night, Mr Sweeney said: “My key issue is around the governance and accountability of this new service, to make sure it’s not under any direct political control. It needs to be led by a chief officer.

“The national board must not attempt or countenance political interference. The chief officer and the management team must remain free to manage the ­service.”

In his speech, Mr Sweeney also touched on the death of lawyer Alison Hume who fell down a mine shaft in Galston, Ayrshire, in July 2008.

Senior Strathclyde firefighters were criticised in an official report on the tragedy by HM Chief Inspector of Fire and Rescue Authorities. It found that they demonstrated an “inexplicable lack of focus on the need for the speedy recovery” of Ms Hume.

A fatal accident inquiry last November found that her death was “accelerated” by a delay in pulling her out.

Mr Sweeney said: “Following the Galston tragedy, the reaction of so many not connected to the event was as disappointing to me as it was predictable. Let me be clear, Galston was not our finest hour, but the way in which our service was singled out for condemnation was regrettable. When the fatal accident inquiry report was published, I reiterated our deep and profound regret over the incident and apologised to Alison Hume’s family and friends for the tragic outcome.”

In the Kilbirnie Street Lecture, an event dedicated to seven firefighters killed in a Glasgow warehouse blaze in 1972, Mr Sweeney raised concerns about a culture of blame which leaves firefighters fearing prosecution more than they fear dying.

He said firefighters need more protection so they can do their job without fear of prosecution.

He added: “The fear of prosecution is often greater in the minds of firefighters than the fear of losing their life. Many of my officers are very fearful that if they place firefighters in direct danger they are going to end up in handcuffs.

“It’s almost inevitable that firefighters will lose their lives. If a firefighter loses his or her life when those actions are reasonable, we should not be looking at who we can prosecute.”