Fire service ignored automatic alarm before Chester's Grosvenor Museum fire


Steve Creswell

A FIRE at Chester’s historic Grosvenor Museum was detected by an automatic alarm, only for it to be ignored by the fire service.

Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service waited until a 999 call was made from the city centre building before dispatching a fire engine and an aerial appliance at about noon on Friday, April 3.

The delayed response was down to a new policy of not responding to automatic fire alarms (AFAs) at businesses, including schools, which came into effect on April 1.

Fire chiefs say in 2015-16 just over one per cent of calls to AFAs required any “firefighting action” and in these cases resources could have been diverted from genuine emergencies.

But a source close to the service told the Leader there had already been at least two incidents when responses to genuine fires, detected by AFAs, had been delayed. 

These included the incident at the 19th century museum on Grosvenor Street.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has urged county fire chiefs to rethink the policy, describing it as “playing Russian roulette with property and livelihoods”. Critics say the move is about cost-cutting. 

The incident at the museum turned out to be a fire in a light fitting. Children on a school outing from Derbyshire were among those evacuated.

Mark Abram, protection manager for Cheshire Fire and Rescue Service, stressed the fire crews were on the scene within four minutes of receiving the 999 call.

It is not known how long the delay was between the triggering of the AFA and the emergency call being made.

Mr Abram said: “To help reduce callouts to automatic fire alarms crews do not respond to the majority of business premises, including schools, unless a caller at the building reasonably believes that there is a fire.

“The incident which involved a light fitting burning at the Grosvenor Museum was detected by an automatic fire alarm which went to a call receiving centre. 

“Once it was established there was a fire at the premises a 999 call was then made from the museum and crews arrived at the scene four minutes after the call was received.”

Andrew Fox-Hewitt, secretary of the FBU in Cheshire, said the union produced a 17-page response to the fire service's proposals to ignore AFAs at businesses and schools.

He added: “We spoke to the authority on this very subject, making clear that it is known a fire increases with every second that passes, and that a deliberate delay in responding could prove catastrophic to that business, those employed by it and to the local economy.

“We also made clear businesses pay their rates and deserve the same response as everyone else, and that a fire service we are here to save life and property.

“We warned the authority members the service's managers had put forward a proposal that would play Russian roulette with property and livelihoods.”

Under the new system, a fire engine will not automatically be sent when a call comes in from a building. A 999 call has to be made from someone at the premises, who “reasonably believes a fire has broken out” and only then will fire engines respond.

Automatic alarms from care homes, hospitals, private homes, hotels, hostels, halls of residence, high risk industrial sites and high rise buildings will still receive an immediate response.

Les Skarratts, FBU executive council member for the North West, said: “This is a disaster waiting to happen. The communities we serve and protect deserve a fire and rescue service that responds to calls to fire whatever manner it is received, either by person or automatic fire alarm.

“It is an old saying in the fire service that remains true today in that we do not go to false alarms, only drive back from them.

“It is the case every single fire that starts in a building with automatic fire protection, has that automatic fire alarm actuated and to ignore that actuation is extremely worrying. The FBU urgently seek that the Cheshire Fire and Rescue Authority reverse this decision as a matter of urgency.”

See full story in the Chester Leader

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