Council fined £30,000 for 2007 warehouse blaze that left four firefighters dead

 

A local authority has been fined £30,000 for health and safety failures linked to a warehouse blaze in which four firefighters died.

Mr Justice MacDuff said the fine imposed on Warwickshire County Council reflected deficiencies in record-keeping and information given to fire crews at the time of the tragedy in November 2007.

During his sentencing remarks at Stafford Crown Court, the judge described the deaths in Atherstone-on-Stour as a "dreadful accident" caused by a series of mishaps and failures which occurred together.

Warwickshire County Council, which employs firefighters in the county, pleaded guilty in January this year to a charge brought under the Health and Safety at Work Act following a criminal inquiry into the blaze.

Although the council pleaded guilty on a limited basis, the charge stated that it had failed to ensure the health, safety and welfare of its employees contrary to Section 2 of the Act.

Three fire service incident commanders also prosecuted in connection with the death were acquitted of four counts of manslaughter at the same court earlier this year.

A jury cleared Adrian Ashley, 45, and 51-year-old Timothy Woodward of gross negligence manslaughter after hearing six weeks of evidence about the deaths of Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Badley, John Averis and Ian Reid.

A third defendant, 50-year-old Watch Manager Paul Simmons, was acquitted of manslaughter on the directions of the judge part-way through the trial.

Passing sentence on the county council today, Mr Justice MacDuff was critical of aspects of the Crown's case against the three incident commanders.

Ruling that senior fire officers had been correct to send crews wearing breathing apparatus into the warehouse, the judge said the main expert witness for the prosecution had not been "fair or balanced" during parts of his evidence.

Describing parts of the prosecution's case - including an assertion that the incident commanders had behaved like First World War generals - as "unacceptable", the judge noted: "All those who attended on that day were qualified firefighters, also experts.

"Prosecution witness after witness went into the witness box and - with a singular exception - spoke in support of the decision to commit men to locate and fight the fire.

"If it needs me to say so, this dreadful accident was caused, as so many accidents are, by a series of mishaps occurring together, by a whole host of causes, some being more potent than others."

Counsel for the county council conceded that the area's fire authority was guilty of failings in its duty to provide building risk information and details of the location of water supplies to its crews.

It also accepted deficiencies in record-keeping relating to training.

Explaining how he calculated the level of the fine, Mr Justice MacDuff said: "In my judgment it is entirely clear that the absence of water information had no bearing on this case at all.

"There was at all times an adequate water supply and no different course would have been taken if the location, for example, of the nearest hydrants had been known.

"As to training, I am equally clear that there can be no causative link, finding as I do that the training deficiencies were largely concerned with records, the decision to begin offensivefirefighting was a correct one, and nothing that happened that night would have been affected."

Although the lack of a card giving information about the warehouse might have been a contributory factor in the tragedy, the judge said it was of little weight compared with "all the other unfortunate and unforeseeable factors" surrounding the deaths.

The judge prefaced his sentencing remarks by praising the bravery of those who entered the burning warehouse which was destroyed in the blaze.

"This was a tragic case involving the deaths of four fine men," he told the court. "I know that their relatives have taken a close interest in this case and I believe that some of them attended every day of the earlier trial as well as this hearing.

"I also wish it to be known that I have read the impact statements and I understand the anguish which is felt at the loss of the lives of young men - men who had their lives ahead of them, men who were following their calling either as retained firefighters or full-timers.

"Men who went into the fire compartment fearlessly in what, at the time, was perceived to be a routine piece of firefighting."

Speaking to the media outside the court building, Warwickshire's community safety spokesman, councillor Richard Hobbs, apologised for the fire authority's failings.

Mr Hobbs said: "We pleaded guilty to the charge brought under the Health and Safety Act because we recognised and accepted that there were failings on our part back in 2007.

"Since then, as the judge emphasised today, Warwickshire has become a model fire authority and our training is some of the finest in the country.

"No fire service can guarantee that nothing will ever go wrong again but we are confident that our service is as safe as it can be."

Mr Hobbs, who welcomed the judge's exoneration of the incident commanders, concluded his statement by paying tribute to those who lost their lives.

"We will always remember the bravery of those who died in the service of their community and we offer our deepest condolences to their families and friends," he said.

PA

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