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Loss of nerve: the Sheriff’s judgement on the death of Alison Hume

“A paramedic was also told to remove his harness and halt an attempt to reach Mrs Hume because he was not familiar with fire service equipment”

That is from a report in the Herald on the Fatal Accident Enquiry carried out by Sheriff Desmond Leslie on the slow death of Alison Hume while the Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service read up about “the parameters of their engagement” and concluded that these did not include her rescue. She was eventually pulled out by a police mountain rescue team, but by that time hypothermia had taken hold. She died of a heart attack in hospital.

Sheriff Leslie said that some degree of “imagination, flexibility and adaptability were necessary” in conducting a rescue of this kind. He described “a preoccupation with adherence to Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service policy which was entirely detached from the event with which Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service was confronted.”

He said: “There was clearly a balance to be struck between the interests and safety of the rescuers, and those of the casualty they were there to rescue.”

Sheriff Leslie directly criticised two senior officers, group commanders Paul Stewart and William Thomson, for their attitudes at the inquiry. He said they were “focused on self-justification for the action or non-action taken by them”.

The sheriff said: “I found their evidence to be bullish, if not arrogant, in their determination to justify the subservience of the need to carry out a rescue to the letter of Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Service Brigade policy.”

It is good that the sheriff has named names. There is precious little penalty other than public shame that will touch a public sector employee who has adhered to procedure. Although the report says that criminal charges “may be brought”, I have a presentiment that the route between the Procurator Fiscal’s office and the criminal courts will turn out to be full of deep holes that an embarrassing report can fall down.

The Fire Brigades Union also made a contribution:

John Duffy, of the Fire Brigades Union Scotland, said: “If we are going to do these specialist rescues you need specialist teams who know what they are doing and know how to use the equipment. We have three statutory functions – to fight fires, prevent fires and deal with road accidents. The problem is we are being asked to do a whole range of duties with no more funding.”

As a commenter to the Herald story suggests, specialist equipment sat there unused and highly trained men sat there debating while Alison Hume slowly died beneath their feet.

Some past Samizdata posts that are also relevant: Alameda County Cowards, We have to wait for the fire brigade because of health and safety, and my first Loss of nerve post.

8 comments to Loss of nerve: the Sheriff’s judgement on the death of Alison Hume

  • I have watched this happening for years in the United States: the administration of a department (Chief, Board, Commission, etc.) promulagetes rules and regulations, then is surprised when those actually performing the services function by those rules.

  • The Wobbly Guy

    I always wonder – what if there had been a rescue attempt by the professionals or civilians, it failed, and the rescuers died?

    I think with the general pussification of society, the rescuers would not be lauded – indeed, society at large might even castigate the rescue services for wasting taxpayers’ money on lost causes, or for not stopping willing volunteers. The volunteers’ own families might want in on the act with lawsuits and such.

    We need to re-inculcate values of bravery and courage in today’s youth. But alas, certain segments of society are hell-bent on stamping out such virtues in schools, in society. I won’t name which ones they are.

  • Done Gone Galt

    There was an anonymous poem posted on a website in 2001 about the NYFD’s response and loss on 9/11. The last lines were

    If no one ever tried and failed
    Would there any heroes be.
    May God grant that their spirit lives
    And strives again in me.

    There seem to be fewer and fewer.

  • Richard Thomas

    I’ve been a bit of a devil’s advocate for the other side in the other similar stories that have been posted here. I think it’s not a good idea for someone to recklessly risk their life and the lives of others to possibly save someone (obviously, emotional connections alter that a little). Particularly, as in one case, where the rescuee has put themselves in that position deliberately.

    However, in this case, it would seem there was little risk to the would-be rescuer and there was safety equipment available that, although explicit training had not been attained, some general common sense would be enough to use. Definitely bureaucracy at its worst.

  • 'Nuke' Gray

    Life seems to be trumping art these days. A few years ago, this sort of thing would only have been seen on The Monty Python Show- now it is Britain. At least we have Bicycle-Repairman to look forward to!

  • llamas

    I think that these problems have less to do with elfinsafety than they do with the rise of specialist units and groups within emergency-service organizations.

    Used-to-was, you had the Fire Brigade, and they showed up to anything and everything, and they all got on with doing what needed to be done to the best of their knowledge and experience.

    But now you have specialized groups, and task-specific training, and certification for different actvities, and you end up with a whole bunch of cadres within the organization. Cadres = turf, and cadres will jealously guard that turf, for both financial (funding) and social (prestige) reasons. After all, if you have a special Ropes and Ladders certification, and a special shiny patch on your sleeve, and special van full of special Ropes and Ladders, it makes you look pretty silly – and over-funded – if some non-special person uses some non-special Rope or Ladder to get the job done. Even worse if the person is so non-special that they’re actually not even a member of your organization at all, ie, just a civilian.

    I see this all the time in police organizations, where special groups and squads will strive mightily to increase their special-ness (in matters of equipment, uniform and doctrine) and will guard their turf aggressively, to the point where actual law-enforcement becomes distinctly secondary.

    The power of such activities to enhance careers should also not be underestimated. I have seen police officers who could not find their own ass with both hands and a flashlight be elevated to dizzying heights of rank based on their association with, and control of, ‘special’ activities. SWAT-type activities appear to be especially-fruitful ground for such plants, since a great part of their time is spent training (and not doing) and they will invariably be overwhelmingly-excessive for virtually any event they actually go to. SWAT and similar can allow people to attain a cult-like cadre status, assiduously-enhanced by almost-comic extremes in equipment, uniform and SOPs, while actually doing relatuively little law-enforcement and assuming very modest risks. They all think they’re Navy Seals or Delta Force, when in fact they spend much of their actual street time kicking down the doors of low-level pot dealers. K-9 is another such branch – it’s absolutely ludicrous that they insist that all of their pampered pooches are only trained in the German language, and the cars always have these ominous warnings – stay back, or the dog will squeeze through the 2″ window opening and eat your children alive! But see how Special we are!

    When you creat all of this Specialy-ness, there will come a point where the main goals of the service start to be subsumed to the Special interests.

    That’s my observation in the US. Maybe things are different in the UK – but based on the story as reported, I think I recognise the smell.



  • Tom

    I feel terrible for the firefighters prevented from going in by the ‘managers’ on scene. If we are brutally honest, we are more likely to see firefighters run into situations we are legging it from.

    When I started as a body snatcher in the eighties, I was deposited into a lift shaft to give aid to a cardiac victim, but the ethos was, ‘what the hell are you doing here unless you intend to get stuck in?’

    Not that many years ago, the patient would have been quickly extracted using whatever came to hand. after removal from the scene the patient would have been conveyed to hospital, and the initial officer on scene congratulated for his innovative use of equipment. Back to base in time for tea and medals.

    But to squander a life like this. Not from the emergency services I joined.

  • Paul Marks

    It is not good enough to blame the regulations (although, yes, the whole “health and safety” mafia should have have a solid punch on the nose), it is also the people directly there.

    Sorry but a person does not stand by when (for example) a gunman has shot someone and they are bleeding to death.

    Nor when a women is dying at the bottom of dark, cold place.

    A human being goes in – if you get killed you get killed. But you go in.

    “But we would be volating the regulations and lose our jobs…..”

    Someone who even thinks in those terms, when a person is dying in front of them, is a shit.

    As is someone who hides behind their “union” rather than speaking for themselves.

    Come on shits.

    Stand up in public (having given your names) and explain why you left this women to die.

    Methinks you are too cowardly to do that – just as you were cowardly on the day you choose to hide behind “elf and safety”.