The lessons learned in the aftermath of a fatal fire in South Wales where two firefighters were killed are still with us says Cerith Griffiths, regional secretary of the FBU in Wales.
THE DATE 1 February 1996 will be forever etched in the minds of the residents of the small valley town of Blaina, South Wales.
One Thursday morning, 22 years ago, at 6:03am the first of eight emergency calls were received at fire control, reporting a house fire at 14 Zephaniah Way in Blaina.
Initially, just one fire appliance was mobilised to the property but on receipt of further calls, which stated that children were trapped inside the property, another appliance was mobilised.
On arrival, crews were faced with a house that was filled heavily with smoke but with no visible signs of fire.
Firefighters Kevin Lane and Stephen Griffin, wearing breathing apparatus, entered the property and proceeded upstairs where they were able to rescue five year old Daniel Harford from the blaze.
The two firefighters re-entered the property, wrongly believing another child was inside. They were caught in a backdraught that engulfed the house in flames.
Kevin and Stephen were eventually pulled out of the blaze by other crew members but were tragically pronounced dead on arrival at hospital alongside Daniel Hartford, the child they had rescued.
Officials at the Fire Brigades Union in the former Gwent Fire Brigade (now part of South Wales Fire and Rescue Service) conducted a full investigation into the events on that fateful day. The lessons are still with us.
The emergency response.
Initial calls indicated that no-one was trapped in the house. However, a subsequent caller stated that a child was in the building and fire control mobilised another appliance.
Some fire and rescue services, including Gwent, routinely then sent only one appliance to domestic fires.
The FBU argued that: ‘An initial mobilisation of two appliances on receipt of the first call to the incident would have provided an additional crew at the fire one minute and 37 seconds before the backdraught occurred. This additional crew could have begun firefighting/venting duties prior to the re-committal of the Blaina BA crew who were caught in the backdraught. The second appliance could also have provided a BA emergency team.’
A subsequent review confirmed the FBU view and highlighted the need for a minimum of nine firefighters to carry out operations safely at a fire like Blaina.
National guidance and procedures for the use of breathing apparatus were not put into practice at Blaina. The FBU highlighted the pressure firefighters are under to intervene and take action, even where the risks are great.
It argued that ‘firefighters feel a moral obligation at certain incidents to act immediately where life is threatened and rescues are required. It is essential to avoid situations which could motivate or pressurise firefighters to act unsafely in the interests of saving life.’
Clearly, sufficient resources are needed quickly at these incidents.
As a result of these failures, breathing apparatus procedures were revised in a Home Office Technical Bulletin the following year.
Lack of training
Failures at Blaina were exacerbated by a lack of training. Firstly, this impacted on the risk assessment. The FBU report noted: ‘The Officer in Charge of the initial attendance was not in a position to carry out a suitable and sufficient risk assessment of the dangers to his initial BA Crew due to inadequate training’
Secondly, crews were not trained adequately. The FBU investigation noted: ‘The crews attending the incident had not been provided with specific, structured training in how to recognise the indicators of a potential backdraught and the tactics to reduce the risk of a backdraught occurring.’
The union recommended that within five year, all firefighters must receive basic and continuation training using real fire training techniques and procedures.
In the aftermath of the fire, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) served enforcement notices on Gwent Fire Brigade on training for operational risks.
More than a decade earlier, the HSE produced a report on training for hazardous occupations which emphasised the need to expose firefighters to risks similar to those that they would face on the incident ground. Subsequently, training methods and materials were improved.
Firefighters have an unwritten covenant with society, an unspoken agreement that their daily courage will be recognised by those they project. Firefighters agree to put themselves at risk to rescue others. But in return, they expect their employers and the general public to acknowledge and value their unique contribution, and to be able to access the best possible equipment, training and resources.