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This article was reproduced with the kind permission
of the British Broadcasting Corporation



Sunday, 4 November 2007, 14:59 GMT
The ever-present threat of death

The death of up to four firefighters while tackling a warehouse blaze in Atherstone on Stour, Warwickshire, has highlighted what a dangerous occupation it can be, with at least 14 firefighters killed in the UK since 1996.

One firefighter is confirmed dead, while three others are still missing.

Friday night's tragic incident at a vegetable packing warehouse in Warwickshire is the second blaze in which firefighters have lost their lives this year.

Hertfordshire Fire and Rescue Service Sub Officer Paul Mallaghan, 46, died on 16 June when he was knocked over by a vehicle as he fought a car fire on the A1M near Stevenage.

He served with Stevenage's Blue Watch, which also lost firefighters Jeff Wornham, 28, and Mike Miller, 26, in a fire in a flat in 2005.

Recent toll

In July 2004 London Fire Brigade personnel Adam Meere, 27, and Bill Faust, 36, died fighting a fire in Bethnal Green, east London.

Off-duty fireman Alex Kent, 25, was killed in January 2003 trying in vain to rescue his brother Phil, 23, from a blaze at the family home in Crowborough, East Sussex.

If the three other firefighters missing after Friday's blaze are also found to have died in the blaze, the warehouse fire will prove to be the biggest killer of British firefighters since 1972.

In August of that year, a warehouse fire in Kilbirnie Street in Glasgow caused the death of seven firefighters.

The worst incident in peacetime Britain took place in March 1960, also in Glasgow.

Nineteen firefighters were killed - 14 from the Glasgow Fire Service along with five members of the Glasgow Salvage Corps - when a fire in a whisky and tobacco warehouse caused an explosion which covered the men in tonnes of rubble.

In London, the deaths of five firefighters after an oil tank explosion at Dudgeon's Wharf remains the biggest loss of life among the city's firefighting services since the end of World War 2.

Bristol firefighter Fleur Lombard died in a Bristol supermarket fire in 1996 started by an arsonist.

She was separated from her colleagues and died in the intense heat. She was the first woman firefighter to die in the UK in peacetime.

A Fire Brigades Union spokesman said after Friday's blaze that firefighters often died in pairs because they did not work alone.

"It tends to be breathing apparatus teams, who work in pairs in the dark in smoke," he said.

He added the union was worried at the upward trend in firefighting deaths.

There's always going to be a bunch of unknowns when you go into a burning building
Former firefighter Bob Docherty

"At this stage we would just say we are concerned about a significant upward movement of firefighter deaths in recent years. It's a major cause of concern for the union," he said.

Former firefighter Bob Docherty said fire crews would have no option but to enter burning buildings if they were worried there could be people trapped inside.

"They would've gone through a risk assessment and looked at health and safety and the risk to the firefighters," he said.

"Training and procedures are pretty strict. I would imagine detailed information on the building would have been sent to officers as they went to the scene."

But he added: "But there's always going to be a bunch of unknowns when you go into a burning building, and this is not a risk-free environment."

US deaths

Mr Docherty, a fire safety consultant, said: "The supervising officer in charge has to make that call. He will take the tactical decision of what to do.

"But if you've got people inside - or people unaccounted for - who might be trapped inside you don't have much choice but to go in and look for them whatever the dangers."

Mr Docherty said fire crews would only be stopped from going into a building if there was no hope of any survivors. He cited the recent fire at the Penhallow Hotel in Newquay, Cornwall, as an example of when a structure was too dangerous to enter.

In the US nine firefighters died in June when the roof of a furniture warehouse collapsed on top of them while they were fighting a fire.

On 11 September 2001, 343 New York firefighters were killed when the World Trade Centre collapsed after being rammed by a pair of hijacked airliners.