Firefighting tragedy - An accident waiting to happen

The tragic deaths of firemen Brian Murray and Mark O’Shaughnessy in Bray this week have highlighted the disgraceful lack of resources and political will to deal with firefighting problems.

People are more likely to die from fire in Ireland than in 19 of 20 developed countries surveyed.

Yet the Government refuses to set up a national agency to tackle the problem, with the result that our fire services are fragmented, outdated, under-resourced, and based on systems that were designed to cope with risks that existed in the 1940s.

The recommendations of a 154-page review on Irish fire safety and services published in 2002 has essentially been ignored, even though the report cost the taxpayer about €200,000. When this report was published, Noel Dempsey, the Environment Minister at the time, declared the “first priority” would be “to move towards implementation of the recommendations in the report”.

A core recommendation was the establishment of a single national structure to standardise and regulate the fire services. But this has not been done.

When Dick Roche became Environment Minister, he attributed the delay to the need for change.

“Change is always difficult, but we exist to serve the public,” he said. In this instance, it seems that the service is limited to an occasional soundbite followed by crass indifference.

The tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust disaster in which 48 people died recommended that the Minister for the Environment should be responsible for the overall operation of the Irish fire services. But this recommendation was also ignored.

The country’s fire services are controlled and managed by 37 local authorities. Those fire services often have to call for assistance from services controlled by another local authority, but they may then find that their equipment is not compatible, because there are no common standards. Hence there is an urgent need for standardisation. Do we have to wait for another catastrophe before the Government faces up to its responsibility? In June 2006, the Irish Examiner highlighted the failure of three successive environment ministers to act on the report. It warned that the Minister and the Government were gambling with lives.

The 2002 review stated categorically that the service needed a complete overhaul, a new structure and a modern system for assessing risks. Despite the best efforts of full-time and on-call firefighters, the infrastructure, staffing levels and spread of cover mean that the service is struggling to cope with the demands of modern Ireland.

This country has changed dramatically in recent years, but our fire service has not, and there is a dangerous lack of risk assessment of the many changes. New high-rise buildings have gone up in various parts of the country, but do the local fire services have the equipment to rescue people in those buildings in an emergency? The lack of proper co-ordination is putting not only the firemen, but also the public, at risk. In comparative terms, we spend only a third of what Canada or Japan spends on fire services.

Failing to tackle this because of cost is a false economy, because our dismal record in relations to fires has consequence for everybody in the form of insurance costs. Moreover, the lives put at risk are priceless.

The Government’s failure to act is a damning indictment of its indifference to people’s safety.

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