Over the past few years there have been a number of cases in the news where either fire-fighters have lost their lives whilst trying to rescue people or people have died when fire-fighters have held back from entering a building.
There is a case currently in progress where fire officers are being prosecuted for involuntary (gross negligence) manslaughter, after fire-fighters lost their lives during a fire. If they are found guilty they could be jailed for as much as 15 years – and even a suspended sentence will mean they will lose their job and their pension. Even if they are found not guilty, there’s a danger of stress related illness brought on by the prosecution.
Is this fair when they were only doing the job they signed up for and are paid to do?
The track record
Fire officers are responsible for making the decision about committing crews to an incident. However, when is it right to send fire fighters in and when should they be held back?
- Two fire-fighters died rescuing people from a tower block, in Stevenage, where no members of the public were hurt
- Six members of the public died in their homes (Lakanhal House), but no fire-fighters were injured
- In an incident in Portsmouth members of the public were rescued, but two fire-fighters died.
The current case is focused on the deaths of four fire fighters who died in a warehouse fire in Warwickshire – where no people had been reported missing.
What happens next?
The prosecution have talked about “what some people see as the irritating trivialities of health and safety red tape”, but fire-fighters are trained to go into situations that are unsafe for most people. Isn’t that the whole point of having a fire brigade? They’re there to rescue people when health and safety has come unravelled. They’ve signed up to walk into danger – in much the same way the Army do.
Of course, nobody wants fire fighters to die – and there is a requirement for dynamic risk assessment, which they have already discussed during the trial. However, whatever the outcome of this case, there will be a backlash on fire officers throughout the UK.
Every time they have to make a decision whether or not to commit crews – they are likely to hesitate. Not only will this mean that more innocent people will die – but that the fire service will no longer be effective in doing the job for which they are in existence.
At the beginning of July Mohammed Javaid was found guilty of playing a risky game with his tenants’ lives. Of the 16 flats he owned six were considered to be uninhabitable due to the condition.
Mr Javaid chose to ignore the prohibition notice and not only allowed the tenants to remain, but moved additional people into empty flats and took absolutely no action to rectify the hazards.
These hazards included live electric cables right next to where people walked, no working lights in one basement area, missing fire alarms – which looked as though they had been removed leaving exposed cables dangling from the ceiling, missing fire doors and a lethal electric wiring system.
No fire risk assessment had been carried out, a proper alarm system was not in existence and the Manchester Fire and Rescue Authority were appalled at the state of the various premises.
Javaid pleaded guilty to 20 offences and Manchester Magistrates Court fined him £33,750 plus £8.5 thousand in costs. Probably, most of the work needed would have cost less.
This is exactly the kind of case that the authorities need to be chasing – and why we insist that our clients have risk assessments and fire risk assessments carried out regularly.
Thank goodness that action was taken before lives were lost.
The London Fire Brigade (LFB) have just issued 29 enforcement notices to care homes in London. Whilst vulnerable people in residential properties need to be protected in the case of fire, there are some things that, as professional fire risk assessors, we see a little differently.
The three core breaches of fire safety were cited as ‘fire escape plans, training for staff and signage on fire exits’, but no mention of the means of escape and structural fire protection was made – nor was the existence of an effective early warning system commented on.
The LFB were quoted as saying “We don’t issue enforcement notices lightly.” But our experience in the London and Home Counties areas is that enforcement notices are often issued when, on closer examination, some of the demands for improvement are not necessarily right for the premises under scrutiny.
Worse still, we’ve had more than one client in full panic mode on receipt of an ‘enforcement notice’ when, having finally seen the ‘notice’ ourselves, realised that it is not an enforcement notice at all – it just looks like one! Surely this is a case of bullying business owners into taking action that may not be necessary?
The very fact that so many care homes have been visited suggests that it’s open season on care homes. If one third of London’s care homes have had a visit, the LFB is definitely on the warpath.
We have a number of registered social landlords (e.g. housing associations) as clients and we’ve seen enforcement notices that actually require work to be done that is not necessary in relation to the particular building concerned. Sometimes this is simply because of the time the building was built in relation to subsequent legislation, not because the building is unsafe. Some legislation is not retrospective, although the local fire authorities seem to be trying to persuade businesses in their areas otherwise.
Are we saying landlords should not take steps to keep their residents safe? Certainly not – but we are suggesting that they need to get pragmatic expert advice to ensure they don’t do things that may not be necessary out of fear or panic.
In my day the Fire Brigade were there to support, educate and befriend businesses and homes and help them to get fire safety right so that lives were protected. These days they seem to have a new piece of equipment – a metaphorical sledgehammer for cracking ‘nuts’.
I keep coming across situations where the fire authorities and the local authorities approach is oppressive and, worse, inconsistent. This is particularly true where there is dual enforcement.
We have several clients in the social housing business who are struggling with the level of enforcement. The Fire Authority seems to be using today’s legislation – which is not retrospective – to force landlords to bring their buildings into line. In fact, some fire strategies could be removed rather than upgraded – they’ve just been overprovided.
Poor advice and this sledgehammer approach to enforcement is costing businesses time, effort, money and resulting in unnecessary enforcement notices, prohibition notices and a lot of stress and worry that could be avoided.
The government is creating legislation and the enforcement authorities are interpreting this as a licence to crack nuts. It’s not good for business and, in the long run, it’s not good for the economy – I know of at least one business that the owner closed, simply because the oppressive enforcement made him ill.
Change is needed; positive change that uses a common sense approach to risk and safety. Are you ready to help us make it happen?