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May 30, 2012

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Fire chief slams prosecution of senior officers after not-guilty verdicts

The two remaining senior fire officers on trial for the manslaughter of four fire-fighters who died while tackling a warehouse blaze in Warwickshire five years ago have been found not guilty.

Following a six-week trial, the jury at Stafford Crown Court gave its verdict today (30 May) on Warwickshire Fire and Rescue service managers Adrian Ashley and Timothy Woodward. Both men had denied manslaughter by gross negligence in relation to the deaths on duty of John Averis, Darren Yates-Badley, Ashley Stephens and Ian Reid at Atherstone-on-Stour in November 2007.

Last week, the men’s colleague, Paul Simmons, who was on trial with them on the same charge, was acquitted on the direction of the judge.

Warwickshire FRS lambasted the decision to bring criminal charges against the men and said it, together with the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, will be writing to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary to seek a formal investigation into the reasons for the prosecution.

Chief fire officer Graeme Smith (pictured) said: “I am very pleased that the case against our three incident commanders has so comprehensively collapsed. I expected nothing less. It is now clear that these cases should never have been brought to court. 

“I am relieved that their ordeal is over but I also feel a sense of sorrow and remembrance for the four brave fire-fighters who died at Atherstone-on-Stour in 2007. We will now be seeking assurances from ministers that prosecutions like this never happen again.”

Expressing his anger over the fact that those responsible for the fire remain at large, Mr Smith added: “Why have the arsonists not been apprehended? And why, instead, did three innocent fire officers find themselves in the dock of a British court? Something went badly wrong with this case.  It’s time for some answers.”

Lee Howell, president of the Chief Fire Officers’ Association, agreed, saying: “There are important national issues at stake here. Do we want fire officers who are inflexible and ultra-cautious, or do we want fire officers who use their initiative, their experience and their common sense when dealing with fires such as the one at Atherstone-on-Stour? 

“Currently, fire-fighters face a no-win situation. If they play it by the book they can find themselves pilloried as time-serving ‘jobsworths’ but if they use their initiative they can find themselves in court facing the loss of their liberty and their reputation. I am seriously concerned that fire officers up and down the country will now be asking themselves, why on earth would I ever want to be an incident commander?”

Phil Crosbie, an associate with Eversheds law firm, said: “The prosecution was based on the contention that the four fire-fighters who died were sent into an obviously dangerous situation for no good reason. While the acquittal of Paul Simmons raised some interesting debate around the issue of who is regarded as a ‘senior manager’, we wait to see what conclusions can be drawn from the jury acquittals.

“Clearly, the threshold for a gross-negligence manslaughter conviction is high, as it should be. The crucial element of the manslaughter offence is the question whether the breach of duty on the part of a defendant was so grossly negligent as to warrant the ultimate criminal sanction. This question must be answered by the jury, who must assess the evidence put before them.

“Even though, undoubtedly, they will be informed by their own experiences, attitudes and opinions this is why it is crucial for businesses to get their planning and processes right, allowing them to show how they can and do operate correctly, and how individual employees are expected to fulfil the duties placed upon them.”

Julie Reid, widow of one of the dead fire-fighters, Ian Reid, told the BBC she is “devastated” by the not-guilty verdicts. Click here to read the BBC report. (SHPonline is not responsible for the content of external websites.)

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Andrew
Andrew
12 years ago

As an ex-serviceman with 8 Op tours in 22 years under my belt, I am very well aquainted with the concept of personnal exposure to extreme risk and self sacrifice.
Nobody inside needed rescuing and so to send guys in was reckless. I’m sure the HSE and CPS thought long and hard about bringing this prosecution and it was not done lightly. The evidence to back a convivtion was clearly present.
Is the CFO trying to say that his men are automatically immune from prosecution?

Bob
Bob
12 years ago

The statement above includes – if they use their initiative they can find themselves in court?

Thier initiative cost 4 fire fighters thier lives, is this not therefore questionable?

Or am I missing the point?

No disrespect intended, the fire service do an outstsanding job, but if you make a judgement call you may need to defend that judgement, they did and were found not guilty of failure of a duty of care to the deceased.

What is so wrong about that?

Doug
Doug
12 years ago

these guys should never hava had the problems associated with this case. To loose four colleagues is a situation that will haunt them, regardless of cause. Firefighting on a large event is a huge team effort, high risk, and unfortunately lives are sometimes lost. We cannot place restrictions on the people at the scene to a point where additional difficulties are imposed. The WHOLE team are super(people) [pc?] let them do their job. They are well aware of the risks,. Heroes ALL.

Jblfipi
Jblfipi
12 years ago

The problem today is that the Civil Servants at the Home Office, Crown Prosecution Service have never worked in the real world, or subject to making instant decisions
in dangerous situations. Health & Safety is more important to them than trying to save life, it is up to the Individual Officer at the scene to assess whether to act. It is all too easy to nit-pick after the Event, or tick boxes to see whether the Officers acted in accordance to Health & Safety Regulations.

Kevin
Kevin
12 years ago

I was very pleased that common sense prevailed in this case, it is a shame that the police did not put the same effort into cacthing the mindless thugs who caused the fire (Deaths) and that the prosecution service did not understand the pressure that the commanders are in when faced, with a fire of this magnitude. I just wonder if the CPP officer who made the decion to prosecute had to stand bye and watch his family in danger because the commander would not make the call to enter a building.

Nickgray9956
Nickgray9956
12 years ago

This had nothing to do with the compensation culture. The HSE, the police and the CPS all agreed on this action. This was not an obvious person requiring rescue such as a pilot you can see or know is there. This was a breakdown in communication and wrong decision making on behalf of the officers concerned which cost lives. If the HSE, Police & CPS think this is worth pursuing then I believe there must be some genuine concerns as to whether or not these officers acted with due diligence.

Ray
Ray
12 years ago

Although not aware of the full facts of this sad case, I suspected that a not guilty verdict would be the outcome. This is one of those cases where there is not really a winner. That said, i was surprised the CPS chose to prosecute the fire officers for gross negligent manslaughter.

I fail to understand why with nearly 1000 workplace fatalities that the CPS have only prosecuted two organisations for Corporate Manslaughter since the Act came in force. There is something not quite right…

Ray
Ray
12 years ago

Bill, I agree with your comments. Indeed, the CPS have been responsible for a number of dubious prosecutions in recent years. For instance, the prosecution of Lords Condon and Stevens for the death of a policeman whilst chasing a suspect over a roof.

Whilst no one should be immune, I think the CPS needs a good hard look at the cases they are bringing to court. It appears to me the higher the profile the more likely a prosecution will ensue. BTW, how did you go from fireman to barrister?!

Robhsofficer
Robhsofficer
12 years ago

Whilst I agree with Stan on the question is why were they being sent in to save an empty building, anyone still in their would have long been past rescuing. The courts should have had the Senior Training Officer and the Chief Fire Officer in court. Where were the divisional officers at this incident if it was the size and as serious as it was. The main problem being that these large fire in County Brigades are few and far between. Its down to training exercise to simulate these scenarios.

Sjsafety
Sjsafety
12 years ago

So is the chief unhappy that fire officers are accountable to the law or does he think the families aren’t entitled to know what happened. Initially as I recall there were stories of them being sent in to save an empty building, a practice largely stopped in the 90’s. The courts have decided it was right the officers are exonerated..unless the chief knows more

Sjsafety
Sjsafety
12 years ago

Nobody stood by while people were in danger unless they thought there were people inside, that was the point. Brave men were sent in for a reason that I am as yet unaware of. I assume the court has determined that reasonable cause to commit was present for this action to be taken. It is a hard decision for a commander at the fire scene, and a hard thing for the crew to carry out. However, there must be justification; emergency service personell and their families are not sacrificial lambs.

Thjeep
Thjeep
12 years ago

Im gutted about the loss of the 4, Im afraid H&S executive has gone over the top, you cant run Fire and Rescue Services on a risk basis defendable in court, where would it end ?

Ex firefighter

Trevor
Trevor
12 years ago

The madness of the Compensation Culture Society is evident here. As a fire fighter in my days in the Fleet Air Arm in the Royal Navy we were trained and expected to run into fire to rescue pilots of crashed aircraft and we had two and a half minutes before our protective suits fell apart. The fire was being tackled by the others in the team. What would we do now if we had to pause and think of the repercussions to ourselves while we watch the pilot burn. — Madness.

Williamryan
Williamryan
12 years ago

This is a troubling case. I comment as an ex fire-fighter (London Fire Brigade) and a barrister. I can see why there is no absolute immunity for the fire service and its management as no organisation has a carte blanche to take risks of losing life9save perhaps the military), but it needs to be looked at very carefully before any prosecution of senior fire officers is started in any case like this.

Fire fighting has a unique risk element not unlike being a soldier.