Wicklow County Council fined €355,000 over firemen deaths
Authority pleaded guilty to three charges related to deaths of two men in 2007
The fire-damaged disused ink factory at Adelaide Villas in Bray, Co Wicklow where firefighters Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaugnessy died in 2007. Photograph: Kate Geraghty/The Irish Times
Firefighters Mark O’Shaugnessy (left) and Brian Murray who died in a fire at a disused building in Bray Co Wicklow in September 2007. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
A court has fined Wicklow County Council €355,000 plus legal costs of nearly €96,000 for criminal health and safety violations relating to a warehouse blaze in which two fire-fighters died.
Last July, in the middle of a trial at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court, the council guilty pleaded guilty to three charges of health and safety breaches. These pleas were accepted by the State who withdrew a charge alleging that one of these breaches had caused the deaths of the two men.
Judge Desmond Hogan described the system of control and co-ordination in place at Bray Fire Station’s watch room as “antiquated, inefficient and flawed” and said that the training provided to fire-fighters was “peripheral and inadequate”.
The training referred to was specifically around the purchase of a fire engine which used a new foam system to put fires out and which was used on the day of the fatal fire.
He said this was the most serious breach because “this training related to a machine to be used in actual fire fighting, a most dangerous and hazardous job for those involved”.
“The results of that lack of training were evident on the day in question; the fire tender was not properly connected to the fire hydrant and that resulted in improper ratio of foam to water which resulted in impeding the fire-fighters using the system,” he said.
He imposed a fine of €300,000 in relation to this breach.
A fine of €50,000 was imposed for the council’s failure to provide an effective system of central control and communications. The trial heard there were issues on the day of the fatal fire with marshalling support engines from neighbouring fire stations.
Two alert calls to Greystones Fire Station by Bray Fire Station requesting assistance to deal with a fatal fire were not received. At one stage three Bray fire fighters were waiting at the watch room in Bray to attend the fire but had no driver to take an engine out.
The judge said: “The watch room procedures were old and out of date and not sufficient for the purposes they were required, that information was coordinated and that fire-fighters could be turned out efficiently.”
He said the least serious breach related to the council’s failure to review the safety statement. “The council may have being lulled into a sense of false security under the umbrella of work being done by the Department of the Environment.”
The trial heard the council were involved at the time with the department’s plan to roll out a universal safety statement for fire departments across the country.
“It appears to me that the fire-fighters had consistent and regular training” before imposing a €5,000 fine for this breach,” said Judge Hogan.
The judge offered his deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the deceased fire-fighters. “Two fire-fighters whose bravery has never being in question, whose competence has never been in doubt and who followed orders in a most difficult and dangerous scenario are now deceased.
“Nothing that I can say or do is going to restore those fire-fighters to their relatives and indeed to their friends and workmates”.
But he said the court could not take these deaths into consideration in sentencing because the charges alleged that Wicklow County Council’s breaches of the health and safety laws had caused these deaths were not before the court, having been withdrawn by the DPP.
Judge Hogan also granted costs against the Council. Alex Owens SC, for the prosecution, said these came to a total of €95,793.21.
In a statement this afternoon, Wicklow County Council said it accepts today’s decision of the court
“By pleading guilty at an earlier court hearing to an amended indictment, Wicklow County Council accepted that there were breaches in a number of systems of work in the operation of its Fire Services between 2005 and 2007,” it said.
“The amended indictment importantly acknowledged that the deaths of Sub-Officer Brian Murray and Firefighter Mark O’Shaughnessy while fighting a fire in Bray in September 2007 were not as a consequence of the breaches of the Act of 2005.
“The council understands and is sensitive to the distress caused during the course of the hearing. However, the immediate acceptance of the amended indictment facilitated the trial being brought to a close at the earliest possible date.
“Wicklow County Council again extends its deepest sympathy to the families of the deceased men - two dedicated and brave firefighters who tragically lost their lives in the incident.
“The council has since addressed all of the Safety, Health and Welfare at Work issues raised by the case.”
During often emotive evidence during the trial in July, several fire-fighters gave evidence of trying to rescue their colleagues in an environment that was described as “an incinerator” and a 747 plane crash.
James Maguire, who was Bray Station Chief at the time, said he had only half the required crew for such an incident. He said the driver for the second engine was on holiday so he was forced to go to the scene with one crew of six men. Soon after he arrived he requested a second engine from another station and then a third.
Mr Murray and Mr O’Shaughnessy were sent in with the new Compressed Air Foam System (CAFS) to fight the blaze and stop it spreading. When Mr Murray radioed to say they had reached a wall, they were ordered to retreat.
Mr Maguire said that this was the last he heard from them. He said at this stage the blaze was at its most intense and “you couldn’t see the hand in front of your face”.
Mr Maguire said he would normally be delegating tasks and directing operations at a scene but, because of the lack of fire-fighters, he had to operate a hose to keep his other men safe. He said he then made “the hardest decision that anyone has made in their life” and told two other firemen they had to go inside and rescue their colleagues.
Eddie McCann described how he and his colleague, Tony Horan, went into the building He said he was trying to fight the fire using a technique called “pulsing”. This involves short quick bursts of water or foam to create a fine mist that changes the nature of the fire.
He said when he tried this with the new foam system they were using that day it didn’t work the way he expected it to. “I tried to pulse again. It was having no affect.”
He managed to find Mr Murray’s hose, grabbed it and followed it along the ground.
“The smoke had started to clear a bit. Visibility was better. I saw reflective bands on leggings and I knew it was one of the lads. There was a piece of wood over it,” he said.
He said he grabbed the straps of the man’s breathing apparatus and started to pull him back towards the door.
He said that when they all got to the door they took the man’s mask off. Mr McCann told the court: “I knew it was Mark. I knew he was dead. I fell out of the doorway. I was wrecked. I fell out. I was f**king roasting.”
Mr Murray’s body was recovered shortly afterwards by fresh fire-fighters who had just arrived.
Mr McCann said that he did not receive hot fire training using the CAFS.