Edinburgh, Fife & East Scotland

Firefighter death: Brigade fined over health and safety breaches

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Media captionEwan Williamson died while tackling a blaze at a bar in Edinburgh in 2009

The Scottish Fire and Rescue service has been fined £54,000 after admitting health and safety breaches that contributed to a firefighter's death.

Ewan Williamson died in 2009 while tackling a blaze at the Balmoral bar in Edinburgh.

At the High Court in Edinburgh, judge Lord Uist paid tribute to Mr Williamson's "courage and dedication".

Mr Williamson was the only firefighter to die fighting a fire in the history of Lothian and Borders Fire Brigade.

The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS), which took over from the eight regional brigades in 2013, had previously pled guilty to a single charge arising from the incident

'Tragic circumstances'

Imposing the fine, Lord Uist said: "I wish to acknowledge and record the courage, dedication and professionalism of Mr Williamson who lost his life in tragic circumstances while serving the public in the course of his duties as a firefighter."

The judge said that, in fixing the financial penalty, he took into account that he was dealing with a public body whose daily business was the prevention of injury and death and preservation of property.

He said there had been "co-operation of the highest degree" by an employer with a good health and safety record, and said he accepted that the case involved an isolated failing which fell very much at the lower end of the scale of criminal culpability.

"Their safety record in the execution of what is inevitably dangerous work was described by their counsel as commendable and excellent," the judge added.

Image copyright Mark Smith
Image caption Mr Williamson became separated from his colleagues as he tried to leave the burning Balmoral bar

In a statement released through their lawyers, the family of Mr Williamson said he had raised concerns with them about the lack of safety training given to firefighters in the week before he died.

Mr Williamson believed this was due to budget cuts, the family statement said.

They added: "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.

"Scottish Fire and Rescue Service now owe it to Ewan to confirm they will engage with the Fire Brigades Union as a matter of urgency to see to it that the lessons from Dalry Road are learned and applied without further delay.

"In the meantime, for the same reasons, the Lord Advocate must give serious consideration to holding a fatal accident inquiry into Ewan's death."

'Serious failures'

The family statement also said Mr Williamson's death was "unnecessary", and that he and his colleagues would not have been exposed to "unacceptably high levels of risk" had recognised firefighting procedures been followed on the night he died.

It added: "There were serious failures in the fire service's incident command and control and firefighting procedures which have not been fully explored yet.

"We had hoped and expected that these failures would be brought to light in the course of the criminal prosecution but now that the Fire and Rescue Service have pleaded guilty to a reduced set of charges that is not going to happen as part of the criminal process."

Image copyright David Lithgow
Image caption Firefighters managed to save 16 people from the blaze

The Crown Office said it would make a decision on whether or not to hold a Fatal Accident Inquiry "as soon as possible and following ongoing discussions with Mr Williamson's family".

The High Court had previously heard how 35-year-old Mr Williamson had become separated from his colleague as they exited the smoke-filled bar.

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

The officers 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, which were located directly above the fire in the basement office.

Floor collapsed

A "BA emergency" - meaning firefighters wearing breathing apparatus are in trouble - was launched, and several unsuccessful attempts were made to locate Mr Williamson before the building was evacuated after the floor collapsed.

His body was eventually recovered through a boarded up window.

At last month's hearing, the SFRS 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.

Image copyright David Lithgow
Image caption The fire service admitted breaching health and safety laws

It also admitted failing to "adequately monitor and ensure attendance by firefighters at training courses" and failing to maintain accurate training records for them between 13 July 2008 and 12 July 2009.

And it further admitted failing to "adequately train firefighters to ensure close personal contact was maintained during firefighting and search and rescue activities" in the same period.

Speaking after the fine was imposed, Chief Officer Alasdair Hay of SFRS apologised unreservedly on behalf of the service for any failing which contributed to Mr Williamson's death.

He added: "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.

"I will now take time to consider the judge's comments and ensure that the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, through its safer firefighter programme, is addressing the issues raised throughout this investigation and that all lessons are learned to improve the safety of our firefighters."

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