Senseless deaths spur reform

Simon Midgley reports on how the West Midlands brigade is leading the w ay
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Shortly before Christmas 1992, at 8.30 am on 15 December, four children aged between 18 months and 5 years died in a house fire in the Kings Heath area of Birmingham. They had been playing with a cigarette lighter in an upstairs bedroom while their mother was downstairs making breakfast. A neighbour sounded the alarm promptly, firemen were at the scene within two-and-a-half minutes but it was too late and the family perished.

The incident shocked Graham Meldrum, chief officer of the West Midlands Fire Service, who was already investigating ways to reduce fire deaths and casualties by educating people about how to prevent fires and spot them quickly.

These senseless deaths made him redouble his efforts. By restructuring the brigade, which serves almost 3 million people in Birmingham, Coventry, Wolverhampton and Walsall, and by diverting resources from management into fire prevention, Mr Meldrum has cut fire deaths and casualties by 70 per cent in the past 4 years.

By deploying fire prevention practices used in Japan and the US, the number of domestic fire deaths in the West Midlands between 1991-94 has been halved from 40 to 20 and the number of injuries reduced from 1992 to 641. The West Midlands service is the most successful in the country at reducing deaths and injuries by fire.

How has this been achieved? Every year up to £1m a year has been spent on fire prevention, on campaigns to educate vulnerable groups such as the elderly and children, about smoke alarms, switching off electrical appliances and disposing of cigarette ash.

Mr Meldrum saw no point in a blanket, West Midlands-wide campaign. In Sutton Coldfield, where 20 per cent of the fires occur, 80 per cent of households have smoke alarms, whereas in inner-city areas, where 80 per cent of the fires occur, only 20 per centhave smoke alarms.

The brigade bought thousands of smoke alarms which it gave to pensioners and single parents. They were installed with the help of volunteers. Local councils are installing detectors in local authority homes.

There have been initiatives in schools, to educate children about the dangers of fire and counsel young arsonists. Specific education programmes have been targeted at local ethnic minorities. Mr Meldrum is convinced that deaths by fire in the home can eventually be eliminated altogether.