FIREFIGHTER Ewan Williamson’s death has been branded “tragic, avoidable and unacceptable” in a far-reaching review carried out by fire chiefs.
The report details a total of nine lessons and 19 recommendations – four of them classed as “critical” and the vast majority “essential” – following the 35-year-old’s horrific death. Mr Williamson became trapped in a toilet while tackling a blaze in the basement of the Balmoral Bar on Dalry Road in July 2009. He is the only firefighter in the history of the old Lothian and Borders Fire Service to die in the line of duty.
A comprehensive study of the incident published by the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), in partnership with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), has now called for urgent improvements in training and safety procedures – as well as better use of resources on the ground.
It found firefighters were given “limited or incomplete briefings” about breathing apparatus, with crews “committed into a high-risk environment, ill-equipped and without full appreciation of the hazards they were facing”.
And it said teams battling the blaze – which saw 16 people rescued from surrounding properties – were not “adequately rested and effectively rotated”, ruling that attempts to combat the fire’s “thick black smoke” by smashing windows and forcing open a delivery hatch may have simply fed the flames further.
The in-depth report comes a year after the SFRS was fined £54,000 for health and safety breaches in connection with Mr Williamson’s death.
It includes harrowing pictures which illustrate the devastating extent of the damage to the room where the firefighter became trapped, while a shocking, minute-by-minute timeline shows how the tragedy unfolded.
It reveals Mr Williamson’s fellow crew members spent half an hour desperately hacking through nine layers of steel mesh, metal plates, bars, rails, iron and panelling to recover his body.
Having failed to rescue him from inside due to collapsing floors, they battled to cut through an old, boarded-up toilet window from the outside – but by the time they got to him it was too late.
The report reveals one firefighter even fell through the floor in an early rescue attempt, just minutes after Mr Williamson issued a distress signal.
He was only saved from plummeting into the flames below because he grasped the leg of his partner, while his breathing equipment caught on the edge of the opening.
Alasdair Hay, chief officer of the SFRS, said Mr Williamson’s death had “shocked” the entire organisation.
He said: “We ask our firefighters to work in inherently dangerous conditions, and we invest a huge amount in trying to make that difficult and dangerous work as safe as we possibly can. But we are never complacent on that.
“In publishing this report, we are making clear our commitment that the recommendations made will each be implemented in full. We are making progress.”
Chris McGlone, executive council member of the FBU, said in a foreword to the report: “Ewan Williamson’s death in the line of duty was tragic, avoidable and unacceptable.
“We welcome the lessons and recommendations in this report and the Fire Brigades Union is committed to working with the SFRS.
“We believe that this report can be the start of that journey and will help us to achieve our shared aim that no firefighter should lose their life protecting our communities.”