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Loss of nerve: the Strathclyde Fire Brigade preferred not to rescue Alison Hume

Of course, when I say that that is what Strathclyde Fire and Rescue (“making our communities safe places to live work and visit”) preferred, I do acknowledge it cannot have been pleasant to sit around listening to her desperate cries for the last six hours of her life while rescue equipment that could have brought her out from the mine shaft into which she had fallen stood inactive. But it was that or disregard a memo.

According to the Times,

An injured woman lay for six hours at the foot of a disused mine shaft because safety rules banned firefighters from rescuing her, an inquiry heard yesterday. As Alison Hume was brought to the surface by mountain rescuers she died of a heart attack.

A senior fire officer at the scene admitted that crews could only listen to her cries for help, after she fell down the 60ft shaft, because regulations said their lifting equipment could not be used on the public. A memo had been circulated in Strathclyde Fire and Rescue stations months previously stating that it was for use by firefighters only.

Tough call. We must hope that the eighteen firefighters present (according to an account in the Scotsman) supported each other.

I am a little confused by the fact that the this rope equipment was specified for use by firefighters only. I suppose this restriction is to avoid untrained people being rescued.

47 comments to Loss of nerve: the Strathclyde Fire Brigade preferred not to rescue Alison Hume

  • Nuke Gray

    Is this some sort of bad-taste joke, or did it really happen? Because it seems more like a skit.

  • jsallison

    Have they been horse-whipped, yet?

  • Alsadius

    Absolutely unbelievable. I know it probably isn’t true legally, but morally this is a clear case of negligent homicide. Sack the idiot who wrote the memo, slap the people who followed it, and make sure that people realize that they are allowed to use their own brains at least once in a while.

  • “…make sure that people realize that they are allowed to use their own brains at least once in a while.”


    If I was in the UK, I’d be eyeing up the prices of ladders, ropes and fire extinguishers in B&Q and Homebase because dialling 999 is looking increasingly like a last resort.

  • RRS

    What would have been the penalty for violating the directive of the memo?

    Not much I warrant.

    How many memoes get disregarded every day do you suppose, how many go unread?

  • Gerry N.

    I’m here in Western Washington, USA wondering what “men” in the UK use in lieu of testicles. Is it required that they be removed upon achieving school age? Or are they chemically deactivated when one signs employment agreements for Government Service?

    If a fire and rescue employee sat there and refused to save the life of someone here in the US because of a f***ing memo his life would no longer be worth living.

    A fire station abuts my back yard, I showed this story to the men there. Their reaction was disbelief, then anger. I asked what they’d do in that situation. They all said they’d get the woman out if it cost them their jobs, then they would work night and day to get the hierarchy who went along with the memo fired. As for the man who just sat there, he would be ostracised as would his immediate superiors who allowed him to allow that woman to die. None of the men I talked with would work with someone like that. They would resign first.

    Your military servicemen seem to be in possession of their testes, what has happened to your fire and policemen?

    England, it seems to me, has a very great deal to be ashamed of.

    Gerry N.

  • Brian, follower of Deornoth

    When I fall down a mine-shaft, I’ll call for help.

    “Help! Help! I’m a fireman, by the way!”

  • Trevor W

    How to get round stupid govt regs:-

    1. Lower firefighter into shaft
    2. A foot before the bottom of the shaft, firefighter loosens the knot, rope hauled up to surface
    3. Men up top radio HQ and report that a firefighter is at the bottom of the shaft, using rope to rescue him
    4. Man at bottom of shaft attaches woman to him, both get hauled up

    The blokes should have used some initiative.

  • Nuke Gray,
    Real, alas.

    In an earlier “Loss of nerve” post I mentioned a case, also in Scotland, where a fireman named Tam Brown broke safety rules to save a drowning woman. He was initially threatened with being disciplined but Tayside Fire and Rescue backed off in the face of hostile press coverage. So, yes, there was a very good chance that they would have got away with it – not that they shouldn’t have done the decent thing irrespective of consequences, as others have said.

    Gerry N.,
    As mentioned above this happened Scotland, not England. But England need not feel left out – I have posted similar stories from England in the past and expect to in the future. And it gives me no pleasure to say it, but if current trends continue you in the States will learn, as we did, that it takes surprisingly few years for the safety culture to weaken previously admirable traditions of bravery in the police and fire services. A related phenomenon with particular relevance to the US is that of the compensation culture. The website http://overlawyered.com/ gives many accounts of how previously admirable traditions among doctors have decayed in the face of legal claims and rules.

  • john east

    This must have been quite upsetting for the 18 firefighters watching the poor woman die. Thank goodness that in our caring society they will all have been given counselling to ease their stress.

  • wg

    I wonder what would have happened if the person at the bottom were to have been a homosexual.


  • Gerry N.

    How to get round stupid govt regs:-

    The American Way:

    1. Rescue woman who fell into mine shaft using any equipment available.
    2. Send her to hospital by any vehicle available.
    3. “Accidentally” kick any pencil necked Elf ‘n Safety goons into mine shaft.
    4. Set up “two holer” over mine shaft.
    5. Shine a light into the shaft to educate any gov’t. nitwits who come around asking questions, asking them if they’d like to join the pencil necks already down there.
    5. Problem solved.

    Gerry N.

  • Ian Bennett

    Gerry N’s comments indicate a major difference between the American mentality and the British. It can also be seen in the fact that since our caring state prevented those evil publicans from allowing smoking in their premises, only one has been punished for, effectively, telling the state to piss off; whereas there were Americans who, when their government instituted prohibition, began to drink specifically because of it.

    Gerry, we were like you once, and a few of us still are. I weep that there are not more.

  • wg,

    Well spotted. I see that the officers who were disciplined there were from Strathclyde Fire and Rescue, too. I think there is some connection between forcing firemen to hand out leaflets at Gay Pride events and the loss of nerve in the Alison Hume case – but it’s not the crass connection that some might make. Somewhere I read a very good article (Theodore Dalrymple?) that said that one of the aims of political correctness was to rub the noses of those who had to follow nonsensical orders in their own powerlessness. People who know they have humbled themselves once lose the strength to make a stand next time. Whatever estimate one makes of the usefulness of handing out fire leaflets at Gay Pride events, obliging the firemen on grounds of political correctness to do something that they felt was either wrong or humiliating was an example of this. It will have had a wider effect on the morale of Strathclyde firemen and probably did contribute in an indirect cultural way to the death of Alison Hume.


    You might notice that a comment from me has suddenly appeared higher up the page. The explanation is that I was “smited” but (being fairly sure I was not a spammer) eventually figured how to de-smite myself and did so.

  • mac

    I can think of several times in my life where I’ve faced regulations that precluded me from doing what I considered right. In all of those cases I remember thinking that if violating my own conscience was the cost of keeping the job, the job was not worth it. I then did what I thought was right and dared the people who wrote the rules to do something about it. Never did I get any repercussions but once, and that once I had people parachuting in to testify on my behalf. I was written a letter of reprimand–and immediately promoted.

    I was always pretty certain that somewhere out there was going to be another job. I was also pretty certain that living with myself after doing something I knew was wrong was going to be much tougher than finding that job. At the end of the day you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and live with what you see there. That’s a lot harder when you’re ashamed.

  • Gerry N, there was a well-publicized case just recently in Seattle, WA, where some security guards stood around and watched a gang of teenagers beat up another teenager. It wasn’t there job to interfere.

    There was another case in New York, recently, where some EMTs refused to help a dying woman because they were on their break at the time. But they did get suspended without pay.

    Both stories were pretty notorious, of course, and neither seems quite as surreally awful to me as this one. I’m just saying, to be fair, it’s not like we haven’t started down the same road ourselves.

  • Ian Bennett

    Wasn’t it Solon of Athens who said that rules are for the guidance of wise men and the blind obedience of fools?

    It’s not difficult to see who we’re dealing with here

  • Gerry N.

    England, it seems to me, has a very great deal to be ashamed of.

    Ashamed, depressed, embarrassed, miserable and worried.

  • Spartan

    A few years back now before advent of mobile phones, l was driving down a country lane and l saw this child about 10 years old very distraught by the side of a ditch. l stopped and rushed over and there in the ditch in fairly fast running water was another child of about the same age. He was holding on to god knows what and virtually up to his neck in water. He couldn’t climb out because the bank was quite steep and slippery even though it was only about a 4-5ft slope.

    l went over the edge, holding onto a thick branch, and lowered myself in. The water was just over my knees. The kid then used me to climb up. He was no worse for wear … just cold and wet and a bit frightened. l then wrapped him up in my coat and took him and his mate home to his parents.

    No doubt this jobsworth who issued the H&S memo would’ve advised me to drive and find a telephone and ring rescue services and under no circumstances approach or touch the children as l do not have the relevant safety equipment or qualifications … and l may even be accused of being a pedo such is the paranoia these days.

    Well, f##k him and all others like him … l’d do the same again regardless

    When the full details of this sorry affair by the rescue services comes out and the actions of these firemen are correct, those guilty of cowardice (yes, l do mean cowardice) should be named and shamed. As for the a##hole that issued this H&S directive, he should be thrown down the very same mineshaft!

    F##k Health and Safety! … it was supposed to be for the construction industry …. not implemented into every facet of our lives! l hate these b##tards!

    Sorry for the swearing but things like this infuriate me.

  • Brad

    I’ve not fully been in the anarcho-capitalist camp, but one has to wonder if the cold, spare landscape the worst possible case scenerio anarcho-capitalism could bring would be any worse than this. Paying people to do this? What’s worse, a need not being filled because there is no profit, or paying eighteen people to stand around at a “rescue” listening to someone die?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Brad, you raise an extremely good point. The state, according to the theorists who support the state, is supposed to be a part of a sort of unwritten bargain – it protects our rights and property and in return, we give up the right to take the law into our own hands. In areas far and wide, this contract is now being routinely violated by the state. The question then arises as to how long can this situation persist.

    Which kind of raises my question on a previous comment about whether, at some stage, a lot of people who have some basic self respect are going to have to think of getting out of this country.

  • Laird

    Ian Bennett, I like your quotation but have been unable to find its source. (The best I’ve come up with is Douglas Bader, British WWII flying ace. I also found one attribution to Oscar Wilde but that doesn’t seem right.) I can’t find any indication that it comes from Solon. Any more thoughts on the source?

  • Jonathan & Brad,

    Indeed. Putting it more crudely, what are the firemen bloody well for if they aren’t going to rescue people any more?

  • Stonyground

    I have worked in jobs where stupid managers who have no clue about what your job actually involves pass down totally unworkable instructions. This has always been dealt with by simply ignoring them and carrying on doing the job in the best way that you can. Having no clue about what your job actually involves means that the idiots have no way of knowing whether you followed their crass instructions or not and in any case they forgot about their instructions ten seconds after they issued them.

    All this leads me to believe that this fire crew must have contained at least one nasty, greasy pole climbing, little snitch. Someone who was willing to sprag on his fellow workers for personal gain. Otherwise, if they broke the health and safety rules, who would know?

  • Jim

    Is there not a good case for the relatives of the deceased to sue the writer of the H&S memo, on the grounds that the H&S executive will undoubted deny that anyone would ever have been prosecuted if they had gone ahead with the rescue, so the memo writer is guilty of a catastrophic failure of judgement?

    Indeed would not such a case be very much in the public interest, illustrating to little H&S jobsworths that they will be held responsible for their pronouncements, if they cause a situation like this?

  • Lifted from a Reason.com thread, left by the inimitable Iowahawk –

    Note to Her Majesty’s Government: Monty Python was an entertainment program, not an instruction manual.

  • Alasdair

    O tempora, o mores ! – where were the Scots Boy Scouts during this ? Any of the patrols from the Troop of which I was a member could have done a better job !

    I hope there is more to the story than this …

    In reading through the story and subsequent comments, I have found one which summarises the problem nicely …

    “3. As health and safety legislation is a legal requirement that is there to protect us all we should be very carefulbefore critising it as that would play into the hands of people who would profit [Tory’s} from cutting corners and putting us at greater risk.” … the commenter apparently didn’t notice that the very “legal requirement” we should be careful not to criticise led to the avoidable death of a civilian …

    At least the Mountain Rescue folk were able to intervene – or the lady would still be down there …

  • Alasdair

    Wind Rider – it is perhaps time for a respectful note to Her Majesty to ask that Her Majesty consider proroguing Her Parliament – and proroguing Her Majesty’s Scottish Parliament …

    And then appointing Baroness Thatcher to a Commission of Inquiry …

  • Gareth

    They don’t seem to like firemen doing their job in Scotland. From 2007:


    A fireman is facing disciplinary action after plunging into a river to rescue a drowning woman.

    Tam Brown, 42, is the subject of an internal investigation by Tayside Fire and Rescue because he breached safety rules during the rescue in the River Tay in Perth.

    He spent eight minutes in the cold water and at one stage feared that he would be swept to his death. But after dragging the 20-year-old woman to safety he was told by his employer that he had acted improperly by risking his life.

  • Paul Marks

    Yes Natalie this is the British way (not just the Scottish way).

    Regulations are NOT followed in the mistaken belief that they serve a useful purpose -0 that is the German way. Germans will tend to follow regulations because they assume they are rational, and (contrary to British belief) stop following them when they clearly frustrate the basic objective – indeed the people who make up the regulations (although they are often very misguided) do their best to create regulations that state the best way to achieve the objective.

    None of this applies in Britain.

    The people who create the regulations do NOT ask themselves “what is the best way to do achieve our objective” and the people who work with the regulations do NOT disregard them (at least not normally) when it becomes clear that the regulations are frustrating the achievement of the objective.

    That is because in Britain regulations are an “end in themselves” – administrators create them because that is what administrators do, and other people follow the rules because that is what ordinary people are supposed to do (here).

    There is no link with a rational objective – no link at all.

    To give an extreme example…….

    If one suggested to a German Civil Servant that there should be a regulation that everyone should hop about on one leg (subject to fines and imprisonment if they did not) his first question would be “and what useful objective would this help us achieve – and HOW would it help us achieve it?”

    In a British government department or executive agency no such question would be asked – indeed someone asking such a question would be thought to be very strange.

    Also ordinary Germans (who are thought by us to be so conformist) would stop hopping about on one leg (assuming such a regulation was passed) if it was clear to them that such behaviour was destructive a useful rational end – for example say they were trying to get away from a out of control fire.

    Whereas British people would hop about on one leg (for fear of punishment – and just because they were told to) without any consideration of whether this was helpful to or destructive of, a useful rational end. And British people would tend to carry on in this behaviour even if it was clearly self destructive.

    By the way (Americans please note) this attitude towards regulation (at least in its creation – if not in the public response to it) is much more common in the United States itself than a lot of people would like to think.

  • Ian Bennett

    Laird, look here

  • Gerry N.

    Perhaps it might be a good thing for Public Morale in the UK if some clever twelve year old with access to a computer wrote an Health and Safety memo prohibiting all persons in government employ from breathing between the hours of 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM local time on odd numbered Wednesdays. Disobedience to result in immediate discharge.

    Anyone possessing an IQ higher than can be rolled on dice will probably ignore, or at least question it, the other 95%, including Scottish Fire Brigade members, will dutifully dip themselves out of the gene pool during the forenoon of the next odd numbered Wednesday. It’s for Queen and Country, don’t you know?

    You’re welcome.

    Gerry N.

  • Thank you, Gerry N.:-)

  • Paul Marks – your point on the unsettling rise (or existence) of the attitudes towards rules for their own sake in America is soewhat illustrated by the reactions to the revelation that a US Air Traffic Controller at New York’s JFK airpot brought his child to work with him one day, and, under direct supervision, allowed the child to talk on the radio to aircraft preparing to take off. Listening to the audio, the kid actually did a pretty good job, clearing two aircraft for take off (obviously at his father’s direction), and then advising them to switch radio channels to the departure frequencies. The pilots involved seemed light hearted and of good cheer during the episode, and everything went rather smoothly.

    Of course, when audio of the event hit the media, the shit hit the fan.

    Surveying the comments to a post about the incident at the site HotAir.com, it was an all or nothing affair – people either shrugged, or seemed to be campaigning for the controller, his supervisor, and possibly even the child to be crucified, then hanged, then drawn and quartered, with the parts being placed on display at the entrance to every FAA supervised facility in the nation on a rotational basis.

    There was a clear divide in reaction – those familiar with aviation (pilots, former military, etc) were almost uniformly in the ‘yeah, that was cute’ category. Those having a cow over it were generally ignorant to the mysterious ways by which large aluminum tubes full of their fellow humans manage to get from point A to point B. The most vehement screed(s) were left by a professional rules scold, a self admitted small business administration health and safety regulations apparatchik from the State of California. When it was repeatedly pointed out to the woman that no, this did not constitute the end of civilization as we know it, nor signal the triumph of total anarchy, she would not be budged from her position of ‘yes, but, the sun COULD have exploded and consumed all life on the planet because a kid talked on the radio during this critical stage of our evolution!’ rantings.

    It is a divide amongst humanity. The rationally calm, versus the ignorant yet easily excitable ijits. And unfortunately, far too many people who occupy positions of authority tend to fall into the latter category.

  • RRS

    Paul Marks-

    On further observation, would you accept that most Americans , don’t know about most regulations, don’t bother to learn about them or whether they exist and generally disregard them when even inconvenient?

  • Laird

    Ian, thank you for the link. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to corroborate it anywhere else. Also, I note that the quotation there begins with the word “laws”, whereas your earlier version (and the ones I’ve found in other places) instead uses the word “rules”. Anyway, see this (go to the “Combat Credos” section at the end of the article for the relevant quote.) I guess this is going to be one of those pliable quotations which crops up in various iterations and attributions. Still good, though!

  • Kim du Toit

    I’d pay a call to the fire station in question, and hand each of those jobsworth firemen a single white feather.

    They are nothing but fucking cowards (if you’ll excuse the Anglo-Saxon): cowards for not ignoring a stupid, stupid regulation, and cowards for not risking their lives to save a life.

    We spend too much time castigating management for shit like this (management is ALWAYS idiotic), when in the end, the final responsibility lies with the people who ignore the stupidity to serve the greater good.

    Any soldier in the US Armed Forces may refuse to obey an order which is clearly un-Constitutional or illegal (“Soldier: shoot those Jews in the pit!” can be followed by “No sir!” without fear of prosecution), and it’s time some of that spirit came back to the British Isles.

    Or else you will surely be doomed.

  • Sandy

    Safe to assume the Fire and Rescue guys would have had this woman rescued very quickly had they not been given orders by someone who should be looking for another job.

    This case is a national disgrace and the sooner the Health and Safety drivel is removed from emergency service workers when it hinders their job, the better.

  • John W

    Firemen have never been of the same calibre as lifeboat crews – statecraft has a toxic effect.

  • wtfo

    Absolutely unbelievable.

    Nonsense. The UK now has now given us at least a good decade of these sort of incidents. Once is unbelievable, two or three times is shocking.

    A few dozen times is simply business as usual.

    You have no one to blame but yourselves at this point

  • Capitalist

    This could be straight out of Atlas Shrugged. Exactly what happens when man’s mind is a slave of government.

  • Nuke Gray

    The only thing that worries me about the kid controller is the rash of ‘based on a true story’ movies that are guaranteed to flow from that sewer called Hollywood!
    As for the firemen, Will rogers said he never made jokes about the government- he just reported the news. Monty Python would no longer need to make anything up- they could just look to the papers. It’s a sad commentary for comedians when they’re all straight-men.

  • Paul Marks

    Wild Rider.

    Yes – a harmless (indeed charming) event where a boy and girl (under the watchful eye of their parent and his workmates) read out some stuff at work…… was turned into a major offence.

    Even Fox News went along with the collectivist cries of “he broke the rules…..” when (of course) actually the aircraft were more safe during this exercise (more safe because there were several people watching) than they are normally.

    RRS – I hope you are right.

    Gerry N.

    Sadly it is not “for Queen and country” (the modern “Brit” could not care less about either), it is not even because they fear to be fired.

    No “we obey because we obey”. Not even fear – just the rules tell us what to do, so we do what the rules say.

    Which is actually more scary.

    Hopefully the “stop breathing” regulation will be circulated soon.

  • Col

    The Mountain Rescue team could respond because they are volunteers, there are remnants of Mine Rescue Teams in Scotland who could have been called, Scotland has its own Cave rescue group who could have dealt with it, there are numerous Mine and Cave rescue teams in Northern England 2hrs away maximum who could have dealt with it. ALL VOLUNTEERS. but not exempt from health and safety regs, if theres an accident the criteria they have to meet in court if sued is the same as the “professional Rescue Services???? this will eventually weaken their ability to respond to, which Team Leader is going to risk his Team members if he knows he’ll land in court if any of them get hurt- and therefore have hislife and his /her families life ruined????

  • lisa

    Surely it meant that the equipment could not be used BY the public, not ON the public. What sense would it make for firefighters to NOT be allowed to rescue the public?

    Can this lot, along with their superiors, and start all over again with well-trained intelligent firefighters.

  • Re the Arbroath rescue, where the fireman was disciplined for going into a river to rescue someone.

    In Evesham recently the police and fire brigade ‘acted corrrectly’ and sat by the river for 97 minutes waiting for a dive team to arrive to rescue a five year old girl from a submerged car. She died in hospital.

    The good news is that ‘we have designated family support officers in place’ to comfort her older brother, who was able to get out of the car and was rescued from the water.

  • Ann Russell

    Tomorrow I am going to George Square in Glasgow to remember 19 men – fire-fighters and salvage-men who died at Cheapside Street in Glasgow 1960. One fireman James Dunlop was awarded the George Medal for bravery beyond the call of duty.I will shed a tear for all who died on that day and also for the shame on the Fire Brigade I served in for 20 years. What has become of it?