Manchester Arena attack: firefighters 'ashamed' they could not help victims

Fire brigades union chief says crews were waiting to go in, but the ‘order never came’

Firefighters felt “embarrassed” and “ashamed” that they were stopped from helping victims of the Manchester Arena terror attack more quickly, the north-west secretary of the Fire Brigades Union has said.

Mark Rowe said crews were waiting to be deployed after the bombing – some of them so close that they had heard the explosion – but “the order never came down from the top”.

His comments came after 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”.

An official review of the response to the attack, published on Tuesday, prompted calls for ministers to rethink “inflexible” rules for dealing with terrorist atrocities so that emergency services can use common sense to save lives in future attacks.

Rowe told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday: “Members were very angry that they weren’t being deployed to the scene.

“There was frustration. Members have talked about their embarrassment that they weren’t deployed and also feeling ashamed that they were prevented from doing anything that night.”

The report by Bob Kerslake, commissioned by the mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, found poor communications between the police and fire service meant the “valuable” assistance of fire crews was delayed by two hours and six minutes after the bombing, which left 22 dead and scores injured.

Many firefighters heard the explosion from their base just over half a mile away from the arena and were desperate to deploy, the report found. Instead, they were told to drive to another fire station three miles away and were left to watch reports on TV.

Fire chiefs wrongly believed they were dealing with a marauding terrorist attack, like those experienced in Mumbai and Paris.

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 report said.

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

The Manchester Evening News said it had been “inundated” with calls from firefighters in the 24 hours after the attack speaking of the shame they felt at being prevented from helping. Many had elite training in how to respond to a terrorist attack.

One firefighter, who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity, said: “Police from Wales and Yorkshire and ambulances from the East Midlands were at the arena helping the dead and wounded – 400 yards from our base.

“It was heart-wrenching for those sat there, with news coming back that the general public were carrying dead, dying, and injured people on advertising boards.

“Paramedics were coming back questioning why we weren’t doing anything when they needed us for basics like oxygen cylinders and to fetch and carry. To a man and woman the ambulance service went despite being told that it was still an active incident.”

The security minister, Ben Wallace, admitted he was frustrated by failures identified in the Kerslake report, but rejected calls for changes in the rules for dealing with terrorist attacks.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday, he said: “The overwhelming response by the emergency services to the attack in Manchester was positive. Was I shocked? No. I was frustrated about the failure that was identified, that an individual called Operation Plato, thinking it was a marauding terrorist firearms attack, and in doing so that communication to the fire service meant there was a delay in the fire service [response].”

Asked whether counter-terrorist protocols would be changed in the wake of the attack, as Burnham called for, the minister said: “The protocols and the training and the exercising and the strategy all were there. When they are not followed we obviously have to look at why they weren’t followed, but overall [on] most of the occasions they were. Paramedics and police were there very very quickly. It was the fire service who were prevented, so it wasn’t that people were abandoned. Treatment was very quick and very real for many people.”

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Wallace added: “Quite rightly it [the Kerslake report] did pick out a failure in a communication between the fire service on the night and the police force in that local response. That is not in line with the guidance that is already in existence and the exercising. That is obviously a lesson to be learned to make sure people understand their role in the response.”


Josh Halliday and Matthew Weaver

The GuardianTramp

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