Emergency services rules too inflexible, says Manchester’s mayor

Andy Burnham calls for common sense to prevail after firefighters were barred from arena site

Ministers must rethink “inflexible” rules for dealing with terrorist atrocities so that emergency services can use common sense to save lives in future attacks, the mayor of Greater Manchester has said.

Andy Burnham made the call as Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) was forced to issue an unreserved apology for turning up two hours late to the Manchester Arena attack because fire chiefs followed protocol instead of showing “pragmatism”.

A review of the response to the attack, published on Tuesday, found firefighters were barred from responding quickly to the attack on 22 May last year after their bosses wrongly thought they were dealing with a marauding terrorist attack, like those experienced in Mumbai and Paris. Many heard the explosion from their base just over half a mile away from the arena and were desperate to deploy. Instead, they were told to drive to another fire station three miles away and were left to watch reports on TV.

When they arrived at the arena, more than two hours after Salman Abedi detonated his suicide bomb, the visibly frustrated fire officers were not immediately allowed on to the concourse to help because of communication errors between “risk-averse” officers in charge.

The local fire service has three special response teams equipped with “Sked” stretchers intended for the rapid removal of casualties from the site of a terrorist attack. But the teams were never deployed and casualties were instead carried out on advertising boards and railings by arena staff. Some casualties said they lay injured for two hours.

GMFRS is the only fire and rescue service in England to have trained and equipped all its firefighters and pumps to respond to cardiac arrests for the ambulance service.

Complaints from firefighters prompted Burnham to commission Bob Kerslake to carry out the independent review, which concluded the fire service played “no meaningful role”.

Burnham called on the government and Home Office to ensure that any new protocols provide “sufficient flexibility to respond to the different circumstances”.

He said: “As this report repeatedly makes clear, there is a danger of inflexibility in applying a theoretical response rather than responding to the unique reality every incident poses. This can lead frontline responders to make judgments that might be right on paper but wrong in practice and this in part explains the fire service’s mistakes.”

The report by Lord Kerslake commends the force duty officer from Greater Manchester Police (GMP) for ignoring the rules. He should, theoretically, have withdrawn all responders from the arena foyer after initiating Operation Plato, the agreed operational response to a suspected marauding terrorist firearms attack. The officer believed a Paris-style gun attack might follow the bomb, partly because early reports suggested casualties had sustained gunshot wounds and some 999 callers talked of shots being fired.

However, after deploying 106 armed response officers within an hour, as well as explosive-sensing sniffer dogs from GMP and other local forces, the officer decided that to ask paramedics and other first aiders to evacuate would have been “unconscionable”. The duty officer was praised by Burnham as one of a number of “individuals on the ground at the arena [who] took brave, common sense decisions which made the response better than it otherwise could have been had they followed protocol”.

The report concluded it was “fortuitous” the North West ambulance service was not informed about Operation Plato, otherwise it might have pulled out its paramedics. Instead they stayed and “lives were saved”.

Dawn Docx, the interim chief fire officer of GMFRS, said she apologised unreservedly for the failures in the previous leadership of the service at the time of the attack.

“It is clear that our response fell far short of what the people of Greater Manchester can expect,” she told a press conference following the publication of the report.

She defended the colleague who made the decision to move fire officers away from the arena, saying he “made it in good faith and he was following national guidance and procedure”.

However, she called for a revision of national protocol “to encourage more operational discretion so that in future we won’t find the situation where people are following the policy but not necessarily doing the right thing”.

Kerslake told reporters the failure by fire chiefs was “extraordinary” and “incredible”, but he was unable to determine whether quicker deployment of firefighters could have saved lives.

That will be for the coroner to decide. Inquests cannot take place until the conclusion of the police investigation into the attack. Detectives are still hoping that the brother of the bomber will be extradited from Libya and continue to work through more than 12,000 pieces of evidence, GMP said.


Helen Pidd North of England editor

The GuardianTramp

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