Thirteen years ago, on 2 February 2005, firefighters Jeff Wornham and Michael Miller gave their lives in the line of duty at Harrow Court, Silam Road, Stevenage. They had rescued one person from flat 85 on the fourteenth floor, but died trying to save the life of Nathalie Close. Three families’ lives were changed forever because of what happened on that night. Jeff and Mike’s colleagues will also live with what happened all of their lives, writes Keith Handscomb, retired executive council member for Eastern England. Our thoughts are with them all.
Today we honour their bravery and sacrifice. However, we also remember our vow to the families after the Coroner’s Inquest in 2007 that we will do all we can to ensure the lessons are learned from the tragedy and that the issues raised are remembered by fire services and policy-makers across the UK. The families’ wishes were simple – learn the lessons and address the shortcomings in the fire and rescue service so that other families of firefighters might be spared the grief of losing loved ones.
Jeff and Michael were killed by a fire phenomena after they opened the door to flat 85 to rescue the occupants. But they didn’t have any water at the time of entry. They found themselves in the classic firefighters’ “moral dilemma”.
Before, during and after the inquest, experts mused over the distinguishing features of a flashover, a backdraught, a smoke explosion, a blow torch effect, wind assisted rapid development and other extreme fire phenomena. However, there is one important area of agreement: It was the opening of the front door to flat 85 that exacerbated the fire phenomenon that killed Jeff and Michael. Without water, they had no means of impacting on the fire or protecting themselves.
The FBU H&S investigation looked in detail at the underlying factors that led to Jeff and Michael opening the front door when they did and without the necessary water, resources or personnel required. The final report made 73 recommendations, having identified serious organisational weaknesses in the identification, assessment and inspection of actual high rise risks and checks on standard operating procedures (SOPs) relating to these risks. It further found insufficient provision of emergency response resources to form the initial attendance for compartment fires in high rise risks such as Harrow Court.
The Coroner took up many of the issues raised by the FBU H&S investigation report in his ‘Rule 43’ letter, with recommendations relating to procedures for tackling high rise fires. These included familiarisation visits by local crews, information and training, safety features of high rise buildings, general training, personal protective equipment, especially ADSUs and their battery operations above 55 degrees Celsius, water supplies and equipment. The Coroner specifically recommended all fixing/supports for fire alarm systems to be non-combustible/fire-resisting but not for other cables.
Following the inquest Matt Wrack said:
“Everyone at this incident did the very best they possibly could with the resources, training and equipment available to them. But initially there were not enough firefighters to tackle this fire safely and none of them had specific and practical training in fighting fires in high rise blocks.
“The FBU investigation concluded that Hertfordshire fire authority did not put in place what was needed to allow their fire crews to fight this fire safely. Fire crews work in difficult, challenging and potentially very dangerous situations which require the highest standards of operational training and preparation, and those were lacking.
“Selfless and courageous people act in selfless and courageous ways to save life. It is essential to avoid placing firefighters in situations where the instincts which make them firefighters push them into attempting rescues short-handed, without adequate training and without the water they needed to suppress the fire.
“The FBU investigation concluded that Hertfordshire fire authority failed to put in place proper procedures, did not have adequate training and did not send enough firefighters in the initial response to tackle this fire safely. But this tragic loss of life could have happened in any number of fire authorities across the UK - it was only by misfortune that it happened in Stevenage. The entire fire service and Government need to learn the lessons of what happened in Stevenage.”
In this, the FBU’s centenary year, we are reflecting on the ultimate sacrifice made by fallen firefighters and the lessons that remain valid today. We recently remembered Jack Fourt-Wells and Richard Stocking on the 60th anniversary of their loss at the Smithfield Market fire on 23rd January 1958. In the aftermath of their deaths, the Government, the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC) and Her Majesty’s Inspectorate (HMI) responded quickly to the Fire Brigades Union’s representations and issued national instructions to all fire brigades on the standard operating procedures and equipment they all needed to implement without delay. Sadly, that stands in stark contrast with the ineffective and fragmented response after Jeff and Michael gave their lives.
The fatal fire at Harrow Court occurred in the wake of the Government effectively washing their hands of any meaningful governance of the fire and rescue service in 2004. The Government had abolished the CFBAC, disbanded the HMI, repealed many relevant pieces of fire legislation and scrapped the national standards of fire cover. Regrettably, it was in this new governmental and legislative context that the lessons from the bravery and sacrifice of Jeff and Michael needed to be learnt.
The failings in the new governance arrangements were highlighted in 2013 when the Coroner of the Lakanal House inquest issued another rule 43 letter to the LFB revealing that the lessons learnt from Harrow Court and Shirley Towers on risk assessments, familiarisation visits, bridgeheads and communication had either still not been accepted or not implemented fully elsewhere in the UK. Compare and contrast that with the response following the Smithfield Market fire in 1958.
The FBU continues to campaign and highlight subsequent avoidable deaths. More recent tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire are making it increasingly difficult for the government and other policy-makers to ignore the urgent need to address the governance and resourcing crisis in the UK fire and rescue service.
It is in this context we remember today the Harrow Court tragedy and our vow to the bereaved families. We will continue to do all we can to ensure the lessons learned are addressed, not forgotten. But most importantly of all, we remember and honour the bravery and ultimate sacrifice of our fallen comrades Firefighter Jeff Wornham and Firefighter Michael Miller on 2 February 2005.