Inquest into deaths of two firefighters told of alert system failures

Firefighters were available at station to man a second tender but there was no driver


The beeper system used by Wicklow County Council fire service to alert part-time, or retained, firefighters to respond to an emergency failed on 21 separate occasions during a six-week period in 2007, the inquest into the deaths of two firefighters heard yesterday.

Brian Murray (46) and Mark O’Shaughnessy (25) died on September 26th, 2007, while fighting a blaze at a disused factory in Bray, Co Wicklow. Last October, the council was fined €355,000 plus legal costs of nearly €96,000 at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court for health and safety violations relating to the training and equipment being used by the men at the time of their deaths.

The council changed its not-guilty plea to guilty mid-trial, but denies that any failings on its part contributed in any way to the men’s deaths.

Giving judgment at the end of the trial, Judge Desmond Hogan described the system of control and co-ordination at Bray fire station’s watch room as “antiquated, inefficient and flawed” and said the training provided to firefighters was “peripheral and inadequate”.

At the inquest yesterday the man on duty in the watch room on the day of the fire, John Whiston, described how his job was to answer telephone calls alerting the service to fires, assess the veracity of the information and respond accordingly.

In his deposition to the inquest Mr Whiston said he had been working in the watch room for 21 years but had never received any specific call-handling training. He had learned, however, through experience.

Mr Whiston described his minute-by-minute response from 10.39am on September 26th when the first of four calls came through alerting the service to a fire at a derelict site at Adelaide Villas in Bray. A fire tender was dispatched within three or four minutes and soon after an officer on it called for a second tender.

While there were firefighters available at the station to man a second tender there was no driver. Mr Whiston therefore asked Greystones fire brigade, which was also being called out, to “swing by” Bray station and give the other firefighters a lift. In the event this was not necessary as the Bray firefighters commandeered another vehicle in their station and did not need the lift from their Greystones colleagues.

Mr Whiston described how he activated the Greystones firefighters’ personal pagers twice but got no response. He then telephoned one of the Greystones men following which the Greystones crew rushed to the fire.

Counsel for the family of Brian Murray, William Hamilton, showed Mr Whiston a memo Mr Whiston had written on February 14th, 2007, detailing 21 instances between January 6th and February 14th of that year in which alert beepers were reported by 11 Bray firefighters to have failed.

“Many times we have had to [telephone] call the absent FF [firefighters] and this obviously has delayed response to the incident. The watch room staff have become very worried at this trend as on many occasions having alerted a crew(s) there are delays in FF responding and on three occasions this involved a driver ,” said the memo (emphasis by Mr Whiston).

Mr Whiston went on in the memo to say it was not always possible to telephone individual firefighters to come to a fire as the person manning the watch room might be dealing with multiple incoming calls in an emergency.

The inquest continues today.