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of the British Broadcasting Corporation



Monday, 5 November 2007, 13:59 GMT
In danger's way at deadly blazes

By Nigel Pankhurst
BBC News

Up to four firefighters - all believed to be part-time "retained" personnel - have been killed in a warehouse blaze in Warwickshire. How does the fire service assess the risks involved in fighting such a massive fire?

Tragedy struck at the Wealmoor Atherstone vegetable-packing warehouse as fire crews battled a suspected arson.

The intensity of the blaze caused part of the roof to collapse - with firefighters inside the building.

One firefighter has been confirmed dead - and there are fears for three of his colleagues who remain missing.

So why were firefighters sent into the warehouse - when it appears there were no members of the public inside?

Adrian Hughes, president of the Retained Firefighters Union, says there are effective procedures in place, which apply equally to full-time and retained personnel, aimed at preventing just such loss of life.

"A lot of people are trying to make a difference between full-time and part-time firefighters." he said. "As far as the operational situation, there's absolutely no difference.

"We've had too many tragedies. We're committing people into very dangerous circumstances."

Risk assessment

He continues: "It all comes down to risk assessment, which is critical. There will be times when it's necessary for us to take on huge risk because human life is in danger.

"There are other times when that life is already lost and it would be stupid to take it on.

"Every situation is different. That's where risk assessment comes in."

Hindsight is a wonderful thing - but they were probably acting on information they had at the time
Adrian Hughes
Retained Firefighters Union

Gathering as much intelligence on the situation as possible on arriving at the scene is crucial, he says.

"If it's a domestic situation they can be quite dangerous, but not on the scale of Warwickshire.

"When you've got industrial premises you need to know is there anybody in there?

"Then, before you commit any firefighters into the building you need to establish what is on fire, how quickly it is developing, and are there any risks such as electrical wires or chemicals?

"The officer in charge has to weigh up all these factors and decide whether to commit people into the building."

Safety officer

Mr Hughes says most fire brigades now use what is known as an incident command system, based on a model developed in the US.

With fires on the scale of that in Warwickshire, the scene will be broken down into a number of sectors.

In each area there will be a safety officer whose sole job is to assess the ongoing risk - they will not be doing any firefighting.

Sector commanders report back to an overall incident commander who will be responsible for making what can be life-or-death decisions based on the information received.

Mr Hughes said: "With the incident command system we are limiting the chance of something going wrong.

"It seems like these guys were committed into the fire some time into the incident. It's not like they arrived at the scene and went dashing in.

"By this time the incident command system should have been working. Within 30 minutes of an incident like that the incident command system should have been up and running."

'Devastating news'

Mr Hughes says it is quite common for fire crews to be told by the public when they arrive at an incident - in all good faith - that people are inside a burning building when that turns out not to be the case.

"We don't know what they were told," he said. "Hindsight is a wonderful thing - but they were probably acting on information they had at the time, which may have been that there were people in the building."

"It can happen when people are running around and there's a crowd there."

Whatever the causes, Mr Hughes says the loss of any firefighter will have a massive impact.

"We were devastated when we heard the news. The effect on their communities when something like this happens is awful and we feel very deeply for their families and their colleagues."