Bray fire inquest finds alert system fault
Expert witnesses say three-day failure of radio signal should have been noticed
The disused warehouse in Bray where two firemen Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy died fighting the blaze
The emergency alert system used by the fire service in Bray, Co Wicklow, to seek support from Greystones was not working for three days leading up to the September 2007 fire in which two Bray firefighters died, the inquest into their deaths heard yesterday.
The three days in question included the morning of the fire. Because the alert system failed, 11 minutes were lost alerting firefighters in Greystones to come to the aid of their Bray colleagues battling the blaze.
The two firefighters who died were Brian Murray (46) and Mark O’Shaughnessy (25).
Wicklow County Council denies any responsibility for their deaths but has accepted criminal responsibility for multiple failures under health and safety at work laws, including relating to training in the compressed air foam system (Cafs) the two men were using at the time of their deaths. Yesterday, two expert witnesses said the faulty alert system should have been noticed by Bray station control, known as the Watch Room.
Bray fire station at the time was effectively the headquarters of the entire Wicklow fire service, run by the county council. The station’s Watch Room, manned by one untrained person who worked alone for their shift, fielded emergency calls for all stations within Co Wicklow.
A dual alert system was used to call out crews from other stations: radio was the primary means of calling for help, backed up by a second signal routed through the telephone network, both delivered to paging beepers carried by individual firefighters.
The system was supposedly tested on a daily basis: at 9am on weekdays and noon at weekends. Bray Watch Room would send a radio signal to other stations, followed by a signal to the pagers. If the radio signal was received, the Watch Room operator would get a tonal response on his telephone console and a printout, showing the radio alert had been received.
But on September 24th, 25th and 26th (the day of the fire), no “message received” response, either by tone or printout, came back to the Watch Room.
“That should have been picked up [in testing],” John Ryan, a technician with the firm that maintained the system, told the Dublin coroner, Dr Brian Farrell. “It should have been picked up by the operator.”
He examined the system on the 27th, the day after the fire, and it was not working. He said on the day of the fire the Greystones pager alerts were not activated for 11 minutes after the failure of the radio signal.
Investigation revealed a software fault in the Greystones radio receiving equipment, resulting in the radio message not being decoded. The failure was “very uncommon”, the “first time it had happened in Greystones” and was “totally out of character” for the system, which Mr Ryan described as otherwise “very good”.
He said every other Watch Room he knew did printouts of their signals and acknowldgements and examined them.
“The [Bray] printout did not display an acknowledgement from Greystones on the 24th or the 25th or the 26th,” said Mr Ryan. “I would have expected that to be observed and I would have expected a service call.”
Shaun McGinley, engineer and operations manager with Sigma wireless, also examined the radio alerting system, on behalf of the Garda, and found the same faults as Mr Ryan.
Earlier, the inquest heard from another expert witnesses, James Bolsover of the Health and Safety Laboratory in Derbyshire, an arm of the UK’s Health and Safety Executive. He had examined the breathing apparatus used by Mr Murray and Mr O’Shaughnessy.
Mr O’Shaughnessy’s breathing mask visor was badly blistered on its right hand side, suggesting he experienced temperatures “in excess of 200 degrees centigrade. . . maybe a few hundred degrees,” said Mr Bolsover. The blistering of the visor suggested to him that radiant heat, as opposed to direct flames from a blast, caused the damage to it.
Mr Murray’s breathing mask, visor, air intake tube and helmet were charred almost beyond recognition, suggesting that he had fallen closer to the seat of the fire. A piece of timber, or some other debris, appeared also to have fallen on him, said Mr Bolsover.
Both men had been using their equipment correctly and it appeared to have been functioning correctly, said Mr Bolsover. He told William Hamilton, counsel fo the O’Shaugnessy family, that it was not possible to say for certain whether Mr O’Shaughnessy was breathing while the radiant heat was blistering his visor.
He agreed with Luán Ó Braonáin, SC, counsel for Wicklow County Council, that it was possible radiant heat in the blaze was accompanied also by an explosion but he, Mr Bolsover, preferred the explanation of radiant heat alone.
The inquest continues today.