Gillender Street Fire Case Study

A radical overhaul of training in Britain's biggest fire brigade has been ordered by the Health and Safety Executive after two firefighters died in an operation which went disastrously wrong.

The HSE has served two improvement notices on the London Fire and Civil Defence Authority alleging firefighters in the capital have been inadequately trained and safety poorly monitored.

The authority, which runs the 6,800-strong London Fire Brigade, has been told to reform training to ensure that there is no repetition of the incident in which two firefighters, Terry Hunt and David Stokoe, died.

It is highly unusual for the HSE, the Government-funded safety enforcement agency, to take action against a fire brigade. Mr Hunt, 33, from Chadwell Heath, Essex, and Mr Stokoe, 25, from Hornchurch, Essex, died after running out of breathing apparatus oxygen while fighting a warehouse fire in south-east London in July 1991.

The fire at Hays Business Services in Bromley was started by arsonists and an inquest jury subsequently returned verdicts of unlawful killing on the two firefighters.

The serving of the notices is revealed in a report sent to all 114 fire stations by Brian Robinson, Chief Fire Officer and director of operations for London.

An appendix to the report outlines several errors. When firefighters withdrew to get a larger hose they left a hosereel which prevented fire doors from closing, intensified the flames and allowed smoke to spread.

However, the most serious mistakes occurred after Mr Hunt and Mr Stokoe teamed up with two men from another station, one of them a station officer, to lay a guideline through the smoke to the source of the fire.

As they did this a second branch guideline was, unknown to them, being laid by another team. Both lines were left lying on the floor instead of being tied to nearby objects as they should have been.

When the first team returned they faced two possible routes out and the station officer decided which way to go. Mr Robinson's report says that the personal line connecting Mr Stokoe to the firefighter from the other station 'was forcibly broken'. It does not go into further detail.

However, one source said yesterday that a fierce argument broke out between the station officer, from Stratford station, and Mr Hunt and Mr Stokoe, from Silvertown. This was overheard on the radio by officers outside and culminated in the Stratford men going one way to safety and the Silvertown firefighters taking the other route. Nobody was told of the split at this stage and Mr Hunt and Mr Stokoe got lost and died.

The fire authority said: 'There was no criticism of our recruit training but, in the view of the HSE, continuing or refresher training was in some instances not up to standard.

'We have set up a permament specialist team which goes round to monitor training at all fire stations and which is ensuring that everything which should be done is being done.'

The HSE said that when the review was completed in London the lessons learned would be applied to other British fire brigades.

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Matt Wrack

Matt Wrack in 2011

BornMatthew D. Wrack
(1962-05-23) 23 May 1962 (age 55)[1]
Manchester
NationalityBritish
Known forTrade unionist for Fire Brigade Union
Spouse(s)Rosemary E. Campbell (m. 1985, divorced)[2][3]
ChildrenMichael (b. 1983) and Sarah (b. 1989)[4]

Matthew D. Wrack (born 23 May 1962) is a Britishtrade unionist and former firefighter. He was elected General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in May 2005.

Politics[edit]

Wrack joined the Labour Party Young Socialists in Salford in 1978 and was a member of Farnworth ConstituencyLabour Party during the period in which the local MP John Roper left Labour to join the Social Democratic Party. Wrack subsequently moved to London, working for a time in the DHSS before joining the fire service.

Wrack was active in the Labour Party Young Socialists before going on to join the Socialist Party, which he had left by the time he was elected to lead the FBU in 2005. His union disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 2004 but reaffiliated in November 2015.[5] In March 2016, he rejoined Labour Party.[6] In September 2017, he was listed at Number 87 in 'The 100 Most Influential People on the Left'.[7]

Service in the London Fire Brigade[edit]

Wrack joined the London Fire Brigade in 1983. He was initially posted to Silvertown Fire Station in the east London borough of Newham, which was closed during a round of cuts in 2014. in 1988 he transferred to Kingsland fire station in Hackney where he spent most of his fire service career on the green watch. Kingsland Fire Station was also closed during the cuts of 2014 and Wrack attended the protest at the closure.[8] Wrack held various positions in the Fire Brigades Union at branch, area and regional level. He worked with Mick Shaw on the North East London Area Committee where both became at various stages secretary and chair. Shaw went on to become the FBU President.[9]

Gillender Street Fire[edit]

In July 1991, whilst North East London Area Secretary of the FBU, Wrack attended the fatal fire at Gillender Street at which two firefighters, Terry Hunt and David Stokoe were killed. Wrack had previously worked with Hunt. Matt Wrack and the then FBU London Regional Secretary (later MP) Jim Fitzpatrick, investigated the incident and produced the FBU report. The London Fire Brigade was later served with two improvement notices by the Health and Safety Executive.[10]

Organising in the FBU[edit]

Wrack was involved in various rank and file and left wing groupings within the FBU, including the Fire Brigades Broad Left (FBBL) which also involved the then union president, Ronnie Scott. The FBBL emerged with the background of the 1984/85 miners strike and during campaigns against the abolition of metropolitan county councils by the then Conservative government. The FBBL produced the bulletin Guideline between 1984 and 1989. Between 1991 and 1995, Wrack helped produce and edit Flame, a bulletin of Militant supporters within the fire service.

Homerton 11[edit]

In early 2000, Wrack was closely involved in the campaign around the FBU Homerton 11, eleven members who were suspended from work and disciplined by the London Fire Brigade management. The campaign by the FBU involved representation at the disciplinary cases and a workplace campaign to organise opposition and prepare for industrial action. Wrack and Andy Dark (current FBU Assistant General Secretary) acted as the principal disciplinary representatives whilst also working to build the wider campaign. Despite initial threats of dismissal, none of the eleven was dismissed and the campaign proved a turning point for the FBU in London in advance of the 2002/3 pay dispute.[11]

2002/03 fire service pay dispute and election as general secretary[edit]

Wrack was the FBU London Regional Organiser during the 2002/3 industrial dispute over pay. He became a leading critic of the strategy followed by the FBU leadership at the time.[12] After being elected London Regional Secretary in 2004, he was elected Assistant General Secretary in 2005. Wrack then defeated incumbent General Secretary Andy Gilchrist on 5 May 2005 after Gilchrist had served one five-year term.[13] This followed widespread discontent over the settlement reached by Gilchrist with the government that ended the 2002-03 pay dispute. The election was marred by ill feeling arising from the recent strikes.[14][15][16] Wrack won 63.9% (12,883 votes) of the vote.[17]

Wrack stood for re-election in 2010 and was challenged by John McGhee, a longstanding ally of former general secretary Andy Gilchrist. Wrack was re-elected.[18] He was elected to the General Council of the Trades Union Congress in 2006 and has been re-elected since. He was subsequently elected onto the TUC executive committee. He was returned unopposed for a third term as FBU general secretary in 2014.[19]

Strikes over fire service 'modernisation'[edit]

In the years following Wrack’s election the FBU saw an unprecedented number of local disputes as employers embarked on various ‘modernisation’ schemes which saw changes to shift systems and cuts to jobs number in local fire and rescue services. These included strikes in Suffolk,[20] West Midlands,[21] and Hertfordshire. The Hertfordshire dispute saw the decision of the Labour government to provide no military cover during industrial action, a decision which would have significant impact on future fire service industrial disputes.[22] Strike action in Merseyside in 2006 led to an accusation from the Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) that the union was pursuing a political agenda in an attempt to disrupt ‘modernisation’.[23]

In 2009 South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service threatened to dismiss and re-employ the workforce in order to impose non-agreed shift arrangements. This led to a further strike.[24][25] The same threat of dismissal and re-employment to impose shift changes also led to strikes in London in 2010.[26] The campaign included some large-scale protests and confrontations with strike-breakers, including incidents in which two FBU members were injured.[27] The dispute led to a number of press articles criticising Wrack and the FBU.[28]

Pensions dispute with the coalition government[edit]

The general election of 2010 saw the creation of the coalition government. A central plank of its programme was the introduction of changes to public sector pensions. The FBU developed a campaign focused both on issues of fairness but also arguments around the needs of firefighting as an occupation and, in particular, the physical fitness standards which were required as a result.[29] The FBU balloted members in 2013 and a 78% Yes vote was returned for strike action.[30] The subsequent dispute was the longest in the history of the FBU.[31] The campaign resulted in Parliamentary debate in December 2014, after the Labour front bench agreed to support a challenge to the new firefighter pension regulations.[32][33][34]

Following the loss of the vote in Parliament, the FBU called a further strike in February 2015. This was accompanied by a mass rally which saw Parliament Square and Downing Street taken over by the protesters.[35] The FBU held a recall Conference to debate options. No further strike action was called. After the election of the Conservative government in May 2015 the FBU launched a legal challenge over the changes, alleging age discrimination in the way ‘transitional protection’ arrangements were introduced.[36]

Fire and rescue service campaigns and major incidents[edit]

In 2008, Wrack launched a new report for the FBU on firefighter deaths in the line of duty.[37] This was accompanied by a lobby of Parliament.[38][39][40] This was followed by a series of reports addressing challenges facing the fire and rescue service. These included reports into attacks on firefighters,[41][42] floods (2007 and 2015),[43][44] and on the fire service role in relation to climate change.[45] The FBU also challenged what it claimed to be a simplistic cost base approach of the Audit Commission to fire service matters.[46]

The FBU also challenged the drift toward increasing emergency response times across UK fire and rescue services.[47] Through these, Wrack and the FBU argued that the shift towards ‘localism’ and the ending of national standards and inspection were creating an increasingly fragmented fire and rescue service. This was an issue Wrack had addressed in a 2008 lecture to the Centre for Research in Employment Studies at the University of Hertfordshire.[48]

In December 2006 an explosion and fire took place at a fireworks storage facility at Marlie Farm in East Sussex. Two employees of East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service were killed and a number injured. The FBU launched cases for compensation on behalf of the family of one of the deceased, Brian Wembridge, and on behalf of the injured firefighters. Despite losing the case in court, East Sussex Fire and Rescue Service continued to refuse payment of compensation and appealled against the decision. Wrack condemned this move and the FBU launched a campaign for the appeal to be dropped and compensation paid in relation to those killed or injured at the incident.[49]

Austerity, cuts and public ownership[edit]

Wrack has participated in the various campaigns against austerity since the election of the coalition government at the 2010 general election. While much of the left has focused on tax avoidance, Wrack has argued for an approach which also addresses issues of ownership of the economy. The FBU published pamphlets on public ownership of the banks[50] and public ownership of the energy companies.[51] Wrack successfully moved a motion at the TUC in 2012 calling for public ownership of the banks and financial services sector, the first time such a motion had been carried by the TUC in its history.[52]

Climate change[edit]

Wrack spoke at the 2008 Campaign for Climate Change trade union conference and at the Time to Act demonstration on climate change in March 2015. Wrack led the FBUs response to the 2007 and 2013-14 floods, calling for a statutory duty on the FRS in England and Wales on flooding. Wrack commissioned two FBU reports on flooding in 2008 (for the Pitt Review) and in 2014 as well as the union's own climate change report in 2010.

Salary and Solidarity fund[edit]

Wrack pledged prior to election to take a salary "based on average earnings of FBU members". The salary of the FBU general secretary is set by the union’s Executive Council and endorsed by the union's conference. It is based on a direct link to an Area Manager within the fire and rescue service, so that any pay rises reflect those agreed on behalf of FBU members. In order to meet his election pledge, Wrack has set aside a portion of his salary and placed it into a separate fund which is used to support trade union and labour movement campaigns, hardship funds, initiatives in the UK and around the world.[53] Wrack was interviewed about his stance on his salary for a BBC Radio 4 documentary in 2015.[54]

Personal life[edit]

Wrack was born in Manchester but has lived in east London since 1981. He lives in Leytonstone, East London with his partner. They have four grown up children.

References[edit]

External links[edit]

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