Costs saved, lives lost

The deaths of four young firefighters is a tragic indictment of our unwillingness to invest in publi

The tragic deaths of four young firefighters in a blaze in a vegetable packing warehouse in Warwickshire is the biggest loss of life in a single incident for the UK fire service since the 1970s.

As Conservative Leader on the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority I vividly remember the shock at the deaths of two firefighters in 2004 in Bethnal Green after a period of over 12 years during which no London firefighter had been killed on duty.

Of course a thorough investigation needs to be conducted into the cause of the fire and the operational decisions made on the day but several features of the Warwickshire incident merit further examination.

The dead firefighters appear to be "retained" firefighters who, rather like lifeboat men, rush from their ordinary jobs to attend incidents usually in their community as and when they are needed.

Unlike many fulltime firefighters, especially those in London who often live many miles from the fire stations on which they are based, retained firefighters are often well known locally, hence the loss in the town of Alcester will be keenly felt.

Beyond metropolitan areas, the retained service provides the core response and in counties such as Devon, Dorset, Norfolk and Lincolnshire retained firefighters far outnumber their fulltime colleagues.

In the strike of 2003 the vast majority of retained firefighters, most of whom are not members of the ever-militant Fire Brigades Union, worked on, not least because they could not betray their local communities.

Their reward for this loyalty was a stubborn refusal by this government to pay them proper pensions on the small retainer and call-out fees they receive and a betrayal by the Fire Brigade Employers (a bizarre collection of male, geriatric county councillors and neanderthal old Labour and SNP politicians from Scotland) to properly recognise their union and give it proper negotiating rights at national level.

Also becoming abundantly clear from the Warwickshire incident is the failure of the building's owner to install a proper sprinkler system.

There are dozens of fires every week, which would barely qualify a fire brigade turnout if a sprinkler system, had been installed. Schools in particular are vulnerable to arson attacks and about two a week are destroyed in a fire in which a sprinkler system would have prevented major damage and allowed lessons to resume the following week.

One of the few (in fact only two) occasions when I have threatened to resign was when my own borough council wished to rebuild a primary school in my ward that had been destroyed by fire without sprinklers in order to save a few thousand pounds.

There are still stupid councillors and frankly negligent planning officers up and down the country agreeing new public buildings without sprinklers.

If there is any silver lining to this dreadful cloud over Warwickshire I hope it is proper recognition for retained firefighters and far more political pressure on fire prevention and protection in new buildings.

Sadly I suspect the fire minister, Parmjit Dhandra, the fourth minister in three years, will dust off his black tie, rush to Alcester, mouth some platitudes and invest no more money in public safety.