The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) has been fined £54,000 after admitting health and safety breaches that contributed to Ewan Williamson’s death in 2009.
Mr Williamson died while tackling a blaze at the Balmoral bar in Edinburgh, after he became trapped while working in conditions of zero visibility and extreme heat, when he became separated from a colleague after taking a wrong turn as they exited the smoke-filled bar. Radio messages revealed that he had turned left instead of right, and had become stuck in the men’s toilets on the ground floor.
The firefighters had been attempting to locate the blaze in the basement, but had retreated due to lack of visibility and heat.
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.
At the High Court in Edinburgh, judge Lord Uist paid tribute to Mr Williamson’s “courage and dedication”. He 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.”
In imposing the fine the judge said that 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,” he added.
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”.
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.”
Following the sentencing HSE head of operations for Scotland, Alistair McNab, said: “This was a complex and detailed investigation, which fully considered all the circumstances that led to Ewan Williamson’s tragic death.
“It reaffirmed the bravery shown by firefighters and officers when protecting members of society. However, a balance has to be struck with Fire and Rescue Services providing suitable arrangements to ensure the health and safety of firefighters and officers.
“In this case Ewan Williamson’s employers should have ensured firefighters were given clear instructions and training on how the principals of close personal contact should be applied while firefighting and carrying out fire and rescue activities; there was an effective system for radio communications which firefighters could rely on; and there was full compliance with procedures for using breathing apparatus.”
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