Hampshire firefighters threaten rebellion over 'lethal' changes to rules on how to fight Grenfell-style tower block blazes

HUNDREDS of furious firefighters are threatening rebellion amid ‘lethal’ changes to safety rules which union leaders have warned are ‘the biggest threat to crews’ lives in decades’, The News can exclusively reveal.

Friday, 3rd September 2021, 4:55 am
Flames and smoke engulf Grenfell Tower in 2017. The news comes as rules are expected to change in Hampshire over how fire crews tackle similar high-rise fires. Photo: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images.

The outrage has been ignited over new procedures set to be introduced on Tuesday which will change how Hampshire firefighters use their breathing apparatuses during infernos in Grenfell-style tower blocks.

The new practices, green-lit by the National Fire Chiefs Council, would permit some firefighters to enter burning tower blocks ‘beyond the entry point’ while ‘not on air’ from the life-saving breathing kits.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire and Rescue Service (HIWFRS) said the changes would ‘provide additional control measures’ over how breathing kits were used and would only affect stairwell safety teams, who would not be involved in directly fighting blazes but securing escape routes for crews that were.

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Mark Chapman of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Union

But firefighters on the ground fear that if the procedures are allowed to be rolled out, it could lead to tragedy.

‘It’s putting lives at risk. It’s an absolute disgrace’

Mark Chapman, secretary of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Fire Brigades Union, said: ‘This is the most progressive step backwards in safety that I have ever seen in my 21 years of service. This is putting lives at risk. It’s an absolute disgrace.’

Mr Chapman added stations across Hampshire were up in arms, with 16 so far having formerly opposed the plans – including Cosham, Southsea, Emsworth and Gosport.

Hampshire and Isle of Wight's chief fire officer, Neil Odin. Picture: Ben Fishwick

Asked whether firefighters would rebel against the proposals, he said: ‘The list of stations opposed to this is growing every day. When it comes to safety, I know watch managers and crew managers will do what they feel is best... they’ll ignore rules that they feel will needlessly put the lives of firefighters at risk.’

The national Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has already voiced its concern over the plans, with similar schemes having already been shot down in London following protests.

Today it can be revealed that Rob Dellow, Hampshire fire brigade union’s health and safety boss, expressed his views bluntly in a letter to county’s fire chief, Neil Odin, last month.

In the three-page correspondence, seen by The News, Mr Dellow said the new rules ‘completely undermines the existing, accepted and proven rules which govern incident command’.

Pedestrians look up towards Grenfell Tower, a residential block of flats in west London on June 14, 2017, as firefighters continue to control a fire that engulfed the building in the early hours of the morning. The news comes as rules are expected to change in Hampshire over how fire crews tackle similar high-rise fires. Photo: Adrian Denniss/AFP via Getty Images.

And in a damning body blow to Hampshire’s top fire officer, Mr Dellow said the proposal ‘ignores lessons learnt from previous firefighter deaths, injuries and (breathing apparatus) emergencies’ and would constitute a ‘breach’ of health and safety law

New rules are a ‘breach of health and safety law’ fire chief warns

The Gosport station manager and dad-of-three added: ‘The practice removes reasonably practicable and easily-implemented control measures and in doing so, by design, reduces firefighter safety to lower than that which can be practicably achieved.’

Firefighters argue key safety checks on breathing apparatus sets could be missed if the new practices are implemented next week.

In this file photo taken on June 14, 2017 police man a security cordon as a huge fire engulfs the Grenfell Tower early June 14, 2017 in west London. Photo by Daniel Leal-Olivas / AFP via Getty Images.

As a result, chiefs fear problems may only be discovered when crews need to put on their breathing masks during an emergency – and that firefighters could then be trapped higher in buildings without enough air to evacuate blazing tower blocks when a fire accelerates unexpectedly.

About 1,600 firefighters in the Hampshire and Isle of Wight region who could be affected by the rethink in procedures, union officials told The News.

The situation has worried Stephen Morgan, Portsmouth South MP, who has written to the fire service to seek ‘justification’ for the changes.

The Labour shadow minister added: ‘Firefighters risk their lives to keep us safe, so it’s only right that we protect them too.

‘Any operational changes that impact their safety must have a proper evidence base, clearly improve community safety and be taken in consultation with firefighters themselves.’

Any suggestion the fire service would put lives at risk is ‘wrong’

HIWFRS insisted that if firefighters were required to work outside of the confines of the protected stairwell, ‘for example into the high hazard areas for firefighting activities’, they will continue to use breathing apparatuses ‘under air’.

The county’s chief fire officer, Neil Odin, told The News: ‘The safety of our firefighters and the public is our primary concern and any suggestion that we would put people at risk is wrong.

‘We are currently introducing and developing a procedure on fires in tall buildings which is fully compliant with national guidelines. This procedure has been designed to secure escape routes for the public and our crews from a fire in a high-rise building.

‘HIWFRS has offered engagement with the Fire Brigades Union since the very beginning.’

A spokeswoman for the fire service added it was committed to rolling out training of the procedure, ‘which is compliant with national guidelines’.

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