This incident, which was instrumental in modernising firefighters’ breathing apparatus and breathing apparatus procedures, proved how great things can be achieved if society learns from tragedies.
Two firefighters, station officer Jack Fourt-Wells and firefighter Richard Stocking from Clerkenwell fire station, died while fighting a blaze at the Union Cold Storage company at Smithfield Market in Covent Garden. Both firefighters were wearing “proto” oxygen breathing apparatus. According to newspaper reports at the time, the pair were among the first to enter the dense smoke, never to be seen alive again.
The incident highlighted the concerns which firefighters had been raising for some time about the equipment they were using and particularly about the safety procedures surrounding the use of breathing apparatus (BA). The inquest found that no record was available of the time at which the two firefighters went missing nor any record of the time at which search procedures started. The Control Unit, which did carry out such recording, did not attend the early stages of incidents so crews arriving first (as at Smithfield) had lower levels of protection than those arriving later.
The consequence was that the fire service altered its policy on breathing apparatus. In the longer term this included replacing the “proto” oxygen sets with compressed-air as used today. The FBU immediately demanded improvements to BA Control procedures and to equipment. John Horner wrote to the Home Office to demand an emergency meeting of the Central Fire Brigades Advisory Council (CFBAC).
This was convened and in a short space of time established an new emergency committee on BA which very quickly recommended improvements. The most significant changes were the introduction of low pressure audible warnings on BA cylinders to alert the wearer if their oxygen (later air) was running low; the introduction of audible devices so that BA wearers could alert colleagues if they became lost or in distress; and, most importantly, improved BA Control procedures to be implemented from the first use of breathing apparatus.
FBU Executive council member Jack Barnes wrote in The Firefighter following the incident: “Surely the time has come when more serious thought and action be taken to safeguard the lives of firemen by reducing to a minimum the risks they are called upon to take in the line of duty for the protection of life and property of the community.
What is hard to understand is that two firemen who went into the job were not missed until it was too late, and were found some time afterwards. It must not happen again.” He called for “a foolproof systematic check on all BA operators in action with a proper margin of safety for checking back”.