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Anger as firefighters told not to answer care home call-out

By SPP Reporter

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FIREFIGHTERS at Tongue were forbidden from responding to a fire alarm at a local care home because there were only two of them, it has emerged.

The alarm was set off accidentally on Monday at Caladh Sona in Melness, a six-bed unit for elderly residential and respite patients.

Two out of the five firefighters from the retained Tongue Unit responded to the call-out, but were then ordered to stand down by Highlands and Islands Fire and Rescue Service (HIFRS) managers.

The criteria is that there must be four firefighters present before a fire engine can leave its base.

HIFRS then called out the Lairg unit which took one hour and 20 minutes to arrive at Melness.

North, West and Central Sutherland Councillor Linda Munro this week said the incident raised fears over fire cover in rural areas such as north and west Sutherland.

The issue is currently a hot topic with concern that stringent, "one size fits all" rules over health and safety and training levels are rendering rural stations unsustainable.

Councillor Munro, a member of the Fire Board in the last council, said the Lairg unit, which has ten of a crew to call on, arrived as soon as possible, but in the event of a real fire, it could have been too late.

She queried why the two Tongue firefighters could not have been allowed to answer the call.

"I accept that two should not be sent out on their own to fight a fire," she said. "But HIFRS is not just a fire service – it’s also a ‘rescue’ service.

"Could these firefighters, who are trained in risk assessment and moving and handling, not have been sent out to Caladh Sona to help the staff in the event that it was a real emergency and help was needed to rescue frail and elderly residents?"

Councillor Munro added that, had fire actually broken out, untrained members of the local community would almost certainly have launched their own rescue mission.

"If it had been a fire, the people in Melness would not have stood by and let Caladh Sona burn," she said.

"HIFRS are throwing responsibility and liability onto communities. I just want people to be aware of the implications of the criteria that firefighters are bound by."

Councillor Munro claimed that formerly the Tongue unit would have been able to leave their base and pick up other firefighters en route, but this was no longer allowed.

HIFRS’s deputy chief fire officer Stewart Edgar told the Northern Times on Wednesday that he would be writing to Councillor Munro in response to her concerns.

Mr Edgar confirmed that a minimum of four firefighters was required to crew an engine, with one of the four qualified to drive, one with incident command experience and two firefighters to sit in the back.

"That is no different from any other fire and rescue service in the UK," he said. "We cannot deploy two people in case we put them in an unsafe position. In this world of litigation we cannot do that."

Mr Edgar said that it was unfortunate that on the day in question North Coast retained units were already fully occupied fighting moorland fires in Caithness, with the nearest available unit at Lairg.

And he suggested that the answer was for more members of remote and rural communities to offer their services as retained firefighters.

"My plea to the community would be to make sure we have more than the two people required," he said.

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