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.