Coroner hopes lessons learned in Gosport lake tragedy could save lives in the future

22/2/12_SB Assitant Chief Fire Officer Andy Bowers.  Picture: Steve Reid (120634-183)ASSESSMENT Assistant chief fire officer Andrew Bowers
22/2/12_SB Assitant Chief Fire Officer Andy Bowers. Picture: Steve Reid (120634-183)ASSESSMENT Assistant chief fire officer Andrew Bowers

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THERE was a very slim chance a man left floating in a shallow lake by firefighters could have recovered, a coroner has said.

But David Horsley, the coroner for Portsmouth and South East Hampshire, said the decision to leave Simon Burgess in the water at Walpole Park was not a significant factor in his death.

He has now called on emergency services to improve their training in case faster reactions could save lives in the future.

And Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service (HFRS) has pledged to review its policies and training.

Simon Burgess was pronounced dead after being pulled from the water at Gosport’s Walpole Park in March last year.

The 41-year-old, of White Lion Walk, was feeding the swans at the lake when it is thought he suffered an epileptic seizure. He was seen entering the water before ending up face-down and motionless.

A two-day inquest at Portsmouth Magistrates’ Court heard that the first firefighters to reach the lake decided there were no visible signs of life and did not go in to get him.

Instead they waited 11 minutes for a specialist unit to arrive from Fareham.

Mr Horsley yesterday recorded an official verdict of accidental death.

He said: ‘I believe there might have been a chance, albeit a very slim one, that he might have recovered if he had been removed earlier.

‘I can’t say it would have been more likely than not in this case.

‘In this case the delay in arrival of the specialist team has not been a significant factor in this tragic death.

‘Therefore all this evidence leads me to the conclusion that Simon’s death was due to an accident.’

However Mr Horsley did say a speedier recovery could save someone’s life if a similar incident ever arose.

He has now called on the emergency services to review their training on how to deal with water incidents.

‘Looking at the evidence I did not feel it was open for me to conclude that a more speedy recovery would have saved his life,’ he added.

‘However a more speedy recovery could make a difference in someone else’s survival.

‘I’m going to request more effective training be given to personnel.

‘I am going to request they get together and re-examine the protocols jointly to ensure the protocols give the best possible guidance for situations like this where a life may hang in the balance.

‘I hope we will ensure Simon Burgess’s death has not been in vain.

‘Simon’s family and friends have suffered so much due to the loss of his life.’

Medical evidence from pathologist Dr Brett Lockyer revealed a person cannot normally survive after being underwater for between five and seven minutes.

But the inquest heard that under rare circumstances, such as in icy conditions, the survival time could be prolonged.

The inquest heard a police officer volunteered to enter the water to retrieve Mr Burgess but was advised not to by the firefighter in charge and his own control room.

A paramedic also suggested he should enter the water but did not after it was pointed out he had no equipment.

HFRS denied claims its firefighters had refused to enter the water for health and safety reasons.

It said firefighters would have waded in immediately if they thought they could save Mr Burgess’ life.

In a statement released after the inquest, a HFRS spokeswoman said: ‘As a learning organisation we take this very seriously and accept the coroner’s verdict.

‘This was a tragic incident and our thoughts remain with the family and friends of Mr Burgess at this difficult time.

‘The decisions taken at Walpole Lake had nothing to do with health and safety or the depth of the water.

‘On arrival at the scene, the officer and crews saw a body face-down and submerged in the water. That person was unresponsive and showing no visible signs of life.

‘Our officers and staff clearly stated if they saw any signs of life and the individual could be saved, they would have gone in to the water and followed rescue procedures.

‘HFRS fully supports the decisions and actions of its officers and crews on that day.’

Fire chief says service will look at improving policies

ASSISTANT chief fire officer Andrew Bowers said the fire service would now work with experts to improve firefighters’ knowledge of this kind of incident.

Mr Bowers said Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service had already looked into ways of improving water rescue policy after the Walpole Lake tragedy.

The fire service will now look at other points raised by the inquest to look at better ways of training crews.

Mr Bowers said: ‘The next step is to re-examine our policies.

‘We have begun to improve our policies anyway.

‘We will discuss it with our police colleagues and South Central Ambulance Service.

‘We will come to a conclusion between us in terms of what guidance we will give.’

Mr Bowers said setting down a time limit as to how long a person could be immersed in water before drowning could be too restrictive so a more general training option could be explored.

He said firefighters currently have access to two documents which give details of underwater survival times.

But he said the service would now consult with medical experts following the inquest to look at better ways of training fire crews in how to deal with these situations.

He added: ‘What we don’t want is members of the public thinking firefighters can’t rescue them.

‘Unfortunately as a result of this incident firefighters have been abused and accused of many things.

‘It was a tragic accident and our thoughts are with Mr Burgess’ family and friends.’