The Fire Brigades Union has called for a public inquiry into the fatal fire in a Camberwell high rise which claimed 6 lives. The call, the only one to come from within the fire service, is in the wake of increasing public concern about the fire, some misunderstanding about how firefighters operate and untrue stories in the media.
The union said it was unacceptable for the Sun to allege firefighters and officers left 5 members of the public to die on the basis of a single phone call from someone claiming to be a firefighter who admitted he wasn’t at the fire. Such a serious charge – totally untrue – should never have been made on the basis of such flimsy and unsubstantiated grounds.
The union has written to local MP Harriet Harman, London Mayor Boris Johnson and fire minister Shahid Malik calling for an inquiry whose proceedings, it said, should be open, robust and challenging. Only such an inquiry could satisfy the public’s right to know the facts and for those facts to be the basis of recommendations.
FBU General Secretary Matt rack said: “In our professional lives we are all too aware of the traumatic impact fire deaths have on families and communities. London firefighters are devastated by the loss of life and want me to express their deep regret that they did not save everyone.
“Our working lives and training are about saving life and it hurts us deeply when we do not do so. Our thoughts remain with the families and friends of those who have died and with those 40 people who were rescued but have had their lives devastated and traumatised by the fire.
“If there are lessons to be learned then only an open and robust inquiry will identify them. There is no question that there are serious public concerns about what happened and these need to be addressed properly and the facts established.
“The review led by Sir Ken Knight, the chief fire and rescue adviser, is a good start but on its own it will not satisfy the legitimate public concerns which have been raised. A public inquiry should cover all aspects of the fire service operational planning and response; the fire safety and inspection regime; and the building construction and management, including the issue of refurbishment, alterations and fire-loading.
“No one is ever beyond criticism but some of the allegations being aimed at firefighters are certainly untrue. And some technical and operational issues need to be better explained.
“To claim, as the Sun did, that firefighters and officers walked away and left people to die is very serious. It should only have been made if there was clear evidence to support it and there is none.
“We fully understand some of the questions raised about firefighters waiting outside the building ready to be deployed. There are also questions about the use of ladders and there will be others.
“London firefighters and officers understand the need to carefully explain what they did and why they did it. We respect the public’s concerns and questions and we will always defend the right for these to be asked at any time whatever the circumstances.”
Fire service procedures are in place, often because hard lessons have been learned from other tragedies at which members of the public and firefighters have been killed or badly injured.
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We deal with some of the issues raised below:
1. Firefighters waiting to be deployed –
Mr Wrack said:
“Our understanding is that the first groups of firefighters at the scene were deployed into the building as soon as they arrived using breathing apparatus. Standard air tanks used in London give 24 minutes of air before the firefighter needs to withdraw.
“Running up flights of stairs or working in very hot and strenuous conditions can mean the air runs out faster than this. It can mean that much of the air is used before you reach the area of the building you are working within.
“Because you can spend a limited amount of time working in breathing apparatus there needs to be teams of other firefighters waiting to replace you. These crews would wait for orders to go in and ensure their entry into the building is known and controlled by the breathing apparatus entry control officer – known as a BAECO.
“As there is often restricted vision in smoke filled buildings they will also use guide lines or crawl with their hands and knees either side of the water hose to get to where they need to go and back out. This was difficult in this building because the individual flats are on two floors and the internal wooden stairs within the individual flats were destroyed or so badly damaged by the fire they were unusable.
“Some London firefighters also have extended duration breathing apparatus which lasts longer and some of this was deployed at this incident. But this does not reduce the physical impact on firefighters of working in dangerous and very hot conditions.
“There are always crews in breathing apparatus ready to replace those coming out of the building. There are also always some crews waiting to be deployed in case another emergency occurs in the building.
“This is sometimes to save firefighters who become injured or trapped such as happened when two firefighters died at a high rise fire in Stevenage in 2005. As far as we are currently aware, everyone in breathing apparatus entered the building on at least two occasions and some more than that.
“We understand that at least 100 firefighters and officers were involved in direct search and rescue and firefighting efforts. We operate the way we do based on hard lessons learned when members of the public are killed or when there have been firefighter deaths, such as when 5 firefighters died in a blaze at Smithfield Market.”
2. Not using ladders to assist in rescues
Mr Wrack said: “Ladders on fire engines do not normally reach above the 4th floor as the ladders only reach 13.5 metres. They were not used for this purpose because every firefighter at the scene would know they could not be used for rescues above this height.
“There are specialist high reach platforms which were deployed to get large volumes of water onto the fire. The two at the scene are known as Aerial Ladder Platforms and could reach some 98 ft (30.2 metres).
“If they could have got close enough to the building they might have, in theory, at least have been able to just reach the 9th floor. But, we understand that falling debris burnt out window frames and material from balconies made this highly dangerous.
“This, together with restricted vehicle access to the bulk of the outside of the building, made it difficult to operate them to their full potential. In any event, the deaths occurred above the level even these aerial platforms can reach.”
3. Gas main ruptured, firefighters were pulled out
A large gas pipe ruptured. We have confirmed this did not result in the firefighters being forced to pull out leaving people to die as the Sun claimed, a story followed up by several media outlets.