Ewan Williamson ‘feared cuts could lead to deaths’

Linda Williamson with her son Ewan Williamson. Picture: submittedLinda Williamson with her son Ewan Williamson. Picture: submitted
Linda Williamson with her son Ewan Williamson. Picture: submitted
EWAN Williamson told his family he was worried a firefighter would be killed due to a lack of training – just a week before he died.

The brave firefighter told his mother and sisters that he feared budget pressures had prompted training cuts in the fire service.

His concerns were revealed after the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service was fined £54,000 for health and safety breaches in connection with his death.

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The 35-year-old died as he tackled a blaze in the basement of the former Balmoral Bar in Dalry Road on July 12, 2009.

A plaque at the former Lothian & Borders  Fire & Rescue Services HQ. Picture: TSPLA plaque at the former Lothian & Borders  Fire & Rescue Services HQ. Picture: TSPL
A plaque at the former Lothian & Borders Fire & Rescue Services HQ. Picture: TSPL

Sentencing the fire service at the Court of Session yesterday, Lord Uist paid tribute to Mr Williamson’s “courage, dedication and professionalism”.

The sentencing brought an end to nearly six years of legal proceedings – however yesterday’s hearing brought little comfort for the Williamson family.

His relatives and the Fire Brigades Union renewed their calls for a fatal accident inquiry (FAI) to avoid an “unnecessary” tragedy happening again.

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Mr Williamson had raised concerns about a lack of training during a family meal in Kinross with mother Linda and sisters Rachel, who was visiting from the United States, and Rebecca.

Bensons Bar on Dalry Road. Picture: TSPLBensons Bar on Dalry Road. Picture: TSPL
Bensons Bar on Dalry Road. Picture: TSPL

A family statement said: “He went on to say that it would not be long before these cuts led to the death of a firefighter. His words have been echoed by many of the firefighters we have spoken to since his death.”

Mr Williamson’s relatives said it was “difficult to know” if anything positive had come out of the prosecution, adding that they placed more importance on lessons being learned from that night, rather than punishing fire service leaders.

The FBU shared the family’s view and highlighted that a fine could have the “perverse outcome” of limiting training budgets.

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FBU general secretary Matt Wrack said: “Ewan Williamson died in the line of duty, serving his local community. It is unacceptable that this process has taken this long. We need much quicker systems so that the fire service can implement changes immediately to improve firefighter safety.”

Andy Fulton, of Mr Williamson’s old Lothian and Borders brigade, said an FAI would be essential in order to learn full lessons from the tragedy.

He added: “Ewan was a friend to all who knew him and a brilliant firefighter and comrade. He will always be in our thoughts as we fight to improve the safety of all firefighters.”

Lord Uist said he would have fined the service £60,000 if it had gone to trial, dropping it to £54,000 in light of the guilty plea tendered last month.

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He said: “This case, which involved an isolated failing, falls very much at the lower end of the scale of criminal culpability.

There has been a prompt acceptance of responsibility and co-operation of the highest degree by an employer with a good health and safety record.”

He said he had taken into account the fact that the fire service was a public body engaged in protecting the public, rather than a profit-making firm.

When the service admitted breaches under the Health and Safety at Work Act last month, the court heard how Mr Williamson had become separated from his colleague as they exited the smoke-filled bar.

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They had been attempting to locate the blaze in the basement, but had retreated due to zero visibility and extreme heat.

They were following a hose line to find their way out of the burning building when they became separated.

It was discovered that Mr Williamson had become stuck in the men’s toilets on the ground floor, directly above the fire in the basement office.

A “BA emergency” – meaning firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are in trouble – was launched, and several unsuccessful attempts were made to find Mr Williamson before the building was evacuated after the floor collapsed. His body was eventually recovered through a boarded-up toilet window.

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The SFRS pleaded guilty to a single charge and admitted failing “to have in place an effective system of radio communication” and failing “to have in place an effective system of implementation of procedures for firefighters using breathing apparatus” during the fire at the bar.

It also pleaded guilty to failing to “adequately monitor and ensure attendance by firefighters at training courses” and failing to maintain accurate training records for them between July 13, 2008, and July 12, 2009.

It further admitted failing to “adequately train firefighters to ensure close personal contact was maintained” in the same period.

Lord Uist acknowledged that the lack of close personal contact between Mr Williamson and his colleague, “attributable to a deficiency in the training”, was “only one” of the causes which led to his death.

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He said that the fire, the “deficient state” of the bar floor, and the fact the toilet window was boarded up, also contributed to Mr Williamson’s death.

The fire service’s Chief Officer, Alasdair Hay, accompanied by fire board chief Pat Watters, declined to comment

outside the Court of Session yesterday. In a statement issued after the hearing, Mr Hay said it had been a “difficult time” for everyone involved.

He said: “Working in dangerous and dynamically hazardous environments is an inherent part of [our firefighters’] job. Tragically the dangers faced by our firefighters on that day resulted in the loss of Ewan’s life, and I apologise unreservedly on behalf of the service for any failing which contributed to Ewan’s tragic loss.

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“Ewan was a very popular and respected firefighter who died a hero in the line of duty at an incident where 16 people were rescued. His professionalism and sacrifice will always be remembered.”

He pledged to address the issues raised throughout the investigation to improve the safety of firefighters.

Statement from Ewan’s family

“It is almost six years since Ewan died while attempting to fight a basement fire in the Balmoral Bar at Dalry Road in Edinburgh.

“He was part of a breathing apparatus team which had been recommitted to the basement only a very short time after their initial deployment.

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“There was zero visibility and he became trapped in extremely hot conditions before the seat of the fire was located and before any water had even been applied to it.

“His death was unnecessary.

“Had well-recognised firefighting procedures been followed that night, then Ewan, and other firefighters, would not have been exposed to unacceptably high levels of risk.”

It continued: “In the week before he died, Ewan visited his mother’s house for a family meal.

“He told his family that he was worried about the lack of safety training being given to firefighters which he believed was due to budget cuts.

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“He went on to say that it would not be long before these cuts led to the death of a firefighter.

“His words have been echoed by many of the firefighters we have spoken to since his death.”

FBU report makes call for action on failings

The Fire Brigades Union has called on the fire service to introduce specific guidance for dealing with blazes in basements.

Union chiefs believe that the fire service conviction only focused on some of the issues which led to the tragedy in July 2009.

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The FBU released an 86-page investigation report into Mr Williamson’s death yesterday to coincide with the conclusion of the legal proceedings.

The document includes transcripts of interviews with firefighters who were on duty on the night of the Balmoral Bar blaze.

It concludes that “failures in planning, resourcing, training and the collection of risk information” contributed to the cause of Mr Williamson’s death. It makes 14 key recommendations to the SFRS, including the introduction of clearer guidelines for dealing with basement fires, and suggests thorough risk assessments are carried out for commercial premises with basements.

The report calls for a safe recovery period for crews using breathing apparatus, and an emergency roll call to ensure that all firefighters are accounted for. It also recommends trainee firefighters wear identification to stand out from more experienced colleagues.

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There are five recommendations relating to improvements to training, including more robust education on the installation of cordons. All training should be recorded in an accurate and accessible manner, the report says.

Roddy Robertson, of the FBU in Scotland, said the case highlighted a “lack of agreement” between the Health and Safety Executive, fire service, police and FBU in how such incidents were investigated.

He said: “It is crucial for the safety of firefighters across the UK and as a legacy to Ewan that our concerns are addressed promptly. For six years we have been frustrated in raising any of the failings due to the criminal proceedings but we will now take the opportunity to discuss meaningful and lasting ways to try and prevent such tragic events happening in the future.”