Questions remain over equipment, training in lead-up to Bray fire
A specialised foam system was used on the day of the firefighters’ deaths
Cafs demonstration: Gavin Barnett (far right) conducts a compressed air flow system training exercise with Arklow Fire Brigade in 2008. Photograph: Garry O’Neil
When Gavin Barnett stood in front of a class of firefighters from Bray in Co Wicklow in late 2007 to teach them how to use a new foam system, he wasn’t long into his explanation when he felt that something was wrong.
“What is it,” he asked them, “am I missing something or what?” On all previous training courses given by Barnett, a Leicestershire firefighter with 33 years of experience, firefighters showed enthusiasm for new equipment and were attentive and full of questions.
“The guys in Bray were not in any way enthusiastic,” Barnett explained in an interview with The Irish Times. “They were sitting back with their arms folded and looking like they were ready for a fight. I knew something was amiss.”
What was amiss was that Barnett had not been told, by Wicklow County Council officials or by officials of the fire service it ran, that just a few weeks before he stood in front of the Bray firefighters, two of their own had died in a fire in which they attempted to use the exact same equipment.
Wicklow County Council denies that the lack of training contributed to the two men’s deaths while fighting a fire in Bray on September 26th, 2007.
Barnett himself has said that irrespective of the firefighting method used – foam or water – it is likely both firefighters would have died because “quite simply they were in the wrong place at the wrong time”, according to comments attributed to him in a report, commissioned by Wicklow County Council, by Michael Slattery and Associates.
Caught off-guard standing in front of the firefighters, Barnett was horrified. “My heart dropped through the floor,” he recalls.
He stopped the class and went outside to check with his trainer colleague, Edward Clarkson, who worked for the foam system manufacturer Godiva (formerly HALE Products Europe), whether anyone had told him of the men’s deaths. But Clarkson also knew nothing of the recent tragedy.
Barnett returned to the men to apologise for his lack of knowledge and sympathised with them. They resumed talking about the foam system before postponing full training to a more appropriate date.
“The crews wanted to know the reasons why things went wrong [in the fire that killed their colleagues] and so we went through that,” says Barnett.
The encounter with the firefighters in class was just one of several examples of his encounters with the Wicklow authorities that troubled Barnett.
Correct hose nozzle
The equipment at the centre of the September 2007 deaths of the two firefighters, Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy, was known as Cafs, or the compressed air foam system. Essentially, it is a method of mixing detergent with water which, when pumped at the correct pressure and through the correct hose nozzle (which was not used in the Bray fire in which the men died), breaks water surface tension, allowing more liquid to stick to the area burning and thereby smother the fire more effectively.
Cafs is well-suited to outdoor fire and to precisely located fires, such as fires in a vehicle. While water is known since time immemorial to be highly effective, much that is used simply runs away without actually helping douse the fire.
When Cafs was introduced in the Bray fire service in July 2007, no one was given full training in its use. A representative of the Northern Ireland company that supplied the tender with the foam system merely showed firefighters various knobs and taps on the machine when he delivered it. About 18 months before, a Wicklow official went to Leicestershire to see a demonstration.
“He only stayed with us till lunchtime,” Barnett recalls. “Had he stayed [to the afternoon], he might have learnt about the training necessary for the correct use of the equipment.”
Now, in November 2007, firefighters were being offered training, “after the event”, as Barnett sees it.
“I was very surprised that Co Wicklow had pencilled in a date for training but they were already using Cafs as a fire tool,” says Barnett. “Every manager up to Co Wicklow [whom he has dealt with] makes it understood that Cafs will not be used until the appropriate training has been given. All the other brigades took note of that and, after taking delivery of the system, didn’t use it until training, for which I and my colleague Edward are the main trainers on behalf of the makers, Godiva.”
Had the Bray firefighters been properly trained, they would likely have used the correct hose pipe nozzle for foam, which they did not on the day.
“It wasn’t their fault,” says Barnett, “They were never shown how to do it right. The nozzle they were using was just a normal, class 8-type branch which only gives a straightforward jet of foam. Had they got a fog-nozzle attachment, they would have got a fog foam.”
The council pleaded guilty to three charges, under health and safety at work legislation, relating to failures in training, equipment and management systems. A charge linking these failures to the men’s deaths was withdrawn.
‘Assertions’ not made
Asked about Barnett’s comments reported here, Wicklow County Council said yesterday: “Mr Barnett never made any such assertions to Wicklow County Council and the council has no information in relation to these matters.”
Gavin Barnett returned to Bray about a year after his initial, abortive training session, and delivered a full training course. At the end of it, a firefighter approached him.
“He came up to me and thanked me. He said ‘I can now go home and tell my Mum that it wasn’t the Cafs that killed Dad’. That was Brian Murray’s son.”
Gavin Barnett retired from Leicestershire fire service in 2011 and is now a full-time consultant in foam firefighting through his company, Cafs Professional Ltd. He was due to give prosecution evidence in the trial of Wicklow County Council but was not called after the council changed its plea to guilty