Coroner told firefighters lacked training

Inquest into deaths of two Bray firemen heard multiple errors were made

Firefighters Mark O’Shaugnessy (left) and Brian Murray at the scene where they died in a fire at a disused building in Bray, Co Wicklow, in September 2007. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Firefighters Mark O’Shaugnessy (left) and Brian Murray at the scene where they died in a fire at a disused building in Bray, Co Wicklow, in September 2007. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Thu, Feb 27, 2014, 21:53

The inquest into the deaths in September 2007 of two Bray fire fighters, Brian Murray (46) and Mark O’Shaughnessy (25), heard yesterday that multiple errors were made is the use of Cafs (Compressed Air Foam System) and the fire tender pump that activated it.

But the expert witness who highlighted the errors, Mr Edward Clerkson, after sales manager at pump manufacturers Godiva and its sister company, Hale, said this was not the fault of the fire team fighting the blaze but was due to an absence of training.

The chain of events leading to the men’s deaths began in July 2007 when a new fire tender, built by Browns Coachworks of Lisburn, Northern Ireland, and equipped with Cafs, was delivered to Bray Fire Station. The lorry driver who drove the vehicle showed those present in the station on delivery where items were kept on the tender and the function carried out by the different knobs and levers on it.

In the event, what the men were told about operating the pump was incorrect, the inquest was told.

About a week after delivery at one of their usual weekly training sessions, fire fighters were shown the new tender by station officer Jim Maguire and were able to have a turn at operating the foam spraying system.

“That’s not proper training?” asked counsel for the Murray family, William Hamilton BL. “Whatever they had,” said Mr Clarkson, “it was not proper training.” He added: “If anything, it is dangerous.”

After his deposition was read, Mr Clarkson was questioned by the coroner, Dr Brian Farrell, who said to him: “One would have thought that training would have been provided [to the fire fighters] before use [of the new system in a real fire]?”

“That didn’t happen in this case,” said Mr Clarkson.

Asked if he knew of another instance where, following purchase of a new tender with the Cafs system, it was put into use without training, Mr Clarkeson replied: “At no other. . . I don’t think. . . We must have done 30 or 40 others in Ireland. I don’t think it was used before training.”

A photograph of the fire tender pump system in situ on the day of the fire was examined in detail by Mr Clarkson. He explained the complex set of inter-locking settings, relating to pressure, flow and the correct ratio of detergent to water, that were needed to operate Cafs successfully. This was not the situation when the men set about attacking the fire.

“They were going into a very dangerous situation with the [pump] gauge in the wrong position all because someone didn’t know the correct position,” said Mr Clarkson.

“I’m afraid that’s all down to training, [to] lack of knowledge.”

Mr Hamilton: “The inescapable conclusion is that a lack of training caused difficulties. Isn’t that correct?”

Mr Clarkson: “Correct.”

Later, Luán Ó Braonáin, SC, counsel for Wicklow County Council, the fire authority and the fire fighter’s employer, which has already been convicted of multiple breaches of health and safety at work legislation, questioned Mr Clarkson’s credentials.

He began by asking Mr Clarkson if there was any aspect of his evidence already given to the court that he would like to change “or clarify before I ask you questions?”

This prompted an interjection by the coroner. “I’m not sure the purpose of that,” said Dr Farrell. Mr Clarkson said if Mr Ó Braonáin could be specific, he would answer.

“What are your qualifications,” asked Mr Ó Braonáin.

Mr Clarkson said he has done a full apprenticeship course in mechanical engineering as a young man and that he was a pump trainer. He agreed that he did not have a degree in engineering and was not a scientist.

You are an after sales manager, a loyal ex-employee, said Mr Ó Braonáin, adding that Mr Clarkson was not an independent expert.

Mr Ó Braonáin said that Mr Maguire has been present at a training day in 2006 in Carlow and in July 2007 when the equipment was handed over. “Incorrectly,” interjected Mr Clarkson, who added that Mr Maguire was in Carlow only as an observer on the course and not a participant.

Later, the inquest heard from Gavin Barnett, a former Leicestershire fire officer and expert in the use of Cafs. He said that in 2007, Cafs was accepted as effective for fires in the open for “small domestic fire” indoors. It was ineffective against smoke.

“Let’s cut to the chase here,” said Mr Hamilton. “Individuals, fire fighters, they’re going into dangerous situations and they should be entitled to know the limitations. . .”

“Absolutely.”

“. . . of any new technology or equipment that they’re using is. Isn’t that right?”

“I agree,” said Mr Barnett, “and the thing that surprises me is that whenever I was the officer in charge of a watch or of a station and there was going to be a new piece of equipment, the one thing that the fire fighter was allowed to do before that equipment went on the road was, first of all, be able to train with it as it was going to be used. The point is to become confident and also to know its limitations and then it was accepted that it went on the road.”

Under cross examination by Mr Ó Braonáin, Mr Barnett was asked about a report in The Irish Times concerning his giving a training course at Bray station in November 2007, after the deaths of the two fire fighters, and that he went “knowing nothing about the incident”.

“When I say ‘knowing nothing’, I was aware, being an English fire fighter, a UK fire fighter, that there had been an incident in Ireland,” replied Mr Barnett. “We did not get to know over in England that there were two fire fighters in Bray that had actually been killed in an incident.”

“It was also reported that, because you weren’t aware,” said Mr Ó Braonáin, “that at the commencement of the training session, that you had to abort the training session. . .”

“Using the term abort loose. . . I can tell you exactly what happened,” said Mr Barnett. “I actually was starting to give my part of the presentation to five fire fighters and bearing in mind that over here in Ireland, these were fire fighters that had been using technology that was... I mean technology that I had trained on 30 plus years before, and then all of a sudden were given the most up-to-date fire fighting appliance that anyone could wish to have in their arsenal.

“The problem with me was, though, that on the number of courses that I’ve attended over here, the enthusiasm is usually over-powering. You can’t stop these guys.

“I’m standing there now as a Caf instructor, trying to tell them about the beauty of compressed air foam, to then be confronted with a wall of ‘I’m not interested; you can tell me exactly what you feel but, guess what? Two of our colleagues have just gone, using Caf technology.’

“Now, bearing in mind I’m a fire fighter. . .

Mr Ó Braonáin: “Was the training aborted?”

“No. What happened was it was not what we would consider a proper Caf Foundation Course. It was actually. . . we continued with the course simply because the fire fighters who were there wanted to know from those who were giving them the proper training, did we make any mistakes?”

At this point the coroner Dr Farrell interrupted to ask why this line of questioning was being pursued. Mr Ó Braonáin said he was questioning Mr Barnett’s credibility. If his version of events at the training session was flawed, it would inform the weight to be given to Mr Barnett’s evidence about matters before this.

Mr Ó Braonáin described as an “absolutely inconceivable proposition” that Mr Barnett did not know of the Bray fire fighter’s deaths when he began the training session of November 22nd 2007. Mr Ó Braonáin said he did not believe that Mr Barnett, at earlier training sessions in 2006, had outlined the limitations of Cafs, specifically that it should not be used indoors.

“The witness says ‘I didn’t know that two fire fighters from Bray had died in a fatality two months before I came to train fire fighters in Bray and I didn’t. . .’ That’s what he says. I say that is absolutely unbelievable and if the jury agree with the proposition that that is absolutely unbelievable, that will affect their assessment of the weight that is given to his evidence in relation to other matters,” said Mr Ó Braonáin.

Dr Farrell asked what all this was to do with Cafs? Mr Ó Braonáin offered to “leave aside the events of November the 22nd” but come back to them, if he felt he needed.

The inquest continues on Friday