Tragic toll of house fires prompts warnings from experts

The Merseyside public has been urged to prioritise home safety after the scale of house fire deaths was revealed.

According to new figures, six people died in house fires across Merseyside last year.

Official statistics show that five of the deaths were accidental, and one of those fatalities came as a result of a fire deliberately sparked by arsonists.

The total number of deaths was two more than in 2018/19, but less than half as many as the 14 killed five years earlier.

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In total, 171 casualties were injured in house and flat fires across Merseyside last year, five less than in 2018/19 and a drop of 19 per cent on the 211 people injured in 2014/15.

Twenty-two of those casualties were hurt in fires that were set deliberately, five more than the previous year.

In total, firefighters were called out to deal with 1,020 house and flat fires across Merseyside last year.

That was only slightly less than the 1,050 blazes sparked in 2018/19 and 19 per cent down on the 1,263 fires five years earlier.

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171

The number of casualties injured in house and flat fires across Merseyside last year

22

The number of casualties who were hurt in fires that were set deliberately

1,020

Number of times firefighters were called out to deal with house and flat fires across Merseyside last year

Merseyside fire service

In response to the figures, The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) said home safety is paramount to keeping people safe – with smoke alarm installation and education being key to this.

Liverpool firefighter Les Skarratts, who is a North West Executive council member at the FBU, said: "If the five accidental deaths didn't have smoke alarms then we need to make sure that they have smoke alarms. We look at if batteries were taken out or if the smoke alarm is old or defective.

"People should not take the batteries out just because it goes off every time someone makes a bacon butty. Always keep batteries in.

"Sometimes people prioritise something else rather than buying a smoke detector.

"People can contact us if they are in a vulnerable group and we will come out to help them.

"The fire service gives out free smoke alarms to vulnerable people. We target the elderly and the vulnerable.

"There are people with drinks or drugs problems and we can't forget these. Some smoke on their couches, so we will make sure they have proper ash trays and they don't tip over. We give practical advice and explain that cigarettes should be extinguished.

"We also target families who are in fear of hate crime which sadly happens regularly. We will make sure they have the proper facilities – we will give them smoke alarms and put equipment under letter boxes that will catch ignited paper and accelerants.

"Some people may buy their own smoke alarm. We will put it up for them because they might put them in the wrong places.

"Some elderly people can't afford electricity and heating. So some use candles to keep warm or for light. It's a worrying trend because candles cause fires. We can help with fuel poverty advice.

"In terms of austerity, the government are putting its citizens at risk because they know people can't pay their fuel bills."

Householders are urged to ensure that all gas appliances are turned off after use and to make sure everything is unplugged.

And before going to bed, ensure that doors are closed to increase the chances of survival as if a fire does ignite it should stay within the room it happened in, meaning people will have the chance to get out if they hear the smoke alarm.

Could the lost lives have been saved?

Mr Skarratts said the reported death figures could actually be higher than the official statistics and he considered if whether the lives that were lost could have been saved.

He said: "If those statistics said there were six fire deaths last year, the real figure might be higher because they are at the coroner's and they are pending. But that's never told.

"And if someone died of a heart attack and there's been a fire and we get there and the person is already dead then it will be reported that it's a heart attack death rather than a fire death.

"The question is could we have saved them? When you go into the details of the six deaths you assess could we have saved them by seeing if we took too long to get there.

"That's part of our story. We are starting to see that we are losing people that we could have saved back in the day.

"We look at how long it takes for the first fire engine got to the address. We ask, did we have enough firefighters at that address? Did it take an inordinate amount of time to get there?

"Then we look at what was the reality of the fatality, where they could have been saved if say we got there in five minutes? If it took say 30 minutes for the fire engine to get there then obviously that would have been a saveable life."

Merseyside lost hundreds of firefighters

The fire service nationally has witnessed the cuts of 11,000 firefighters in the last 10 years, and on Merseyside around 400 firefighter jobs have been lost. Mr Skarratts made clear that these losses have put the public's safety at risk.

He said: "We have gone from being the busiest and most efficient fire service in the world to being pulled right back in the pack.

"With the cut of 400 firefighters then we are going to lose more people in the communities. That's the sad reality.

"The risk is the same the day before you cut lots of jobs. We still have high rise buildings, petrochemical works and elderly and vulnerable people in our community.

"We still have Grenfell-like buildings in Liverpool. So there's the potential for another Grenfell here.

"We keep saying to the government that the working class people of Merseyside will suffer their cuts more than anyone else and they will die in fires. We are now seeing the evidence of it.

"What we are concerned about is if people are dying of smoke inhalation in their beds then we need to have a chance to get these people out and on occasion we see the brutal reality of the cuts in that we lose people that we might have saved back in the day.

"So if you have less firefighters then you are going to have less rescues. Sadly, too many people need to be rescued so there are probably too many fires anyway."

Fire service is surviving on a 'wing and a prayer'

Mr Skarratts cited the government's programme of austerity as a factor in losing civilian lives.

He added: "The attack on the fire service is stupid. Whenever there is a spending review, we think what the level of cuts they are going to put on us this time? You heard the fire service on Merseyside say five years ago we can't sustain any more cuts and then we have another five years of cuts. So where are we now? We are surviving on a wing and a prayer."

The home safety campaigner said communities on Merseyside are more vulnerable today due to changes in firefighting working practices which allow fire appliances more time to get to serious incidents than in the past.

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Mr Skarratts said: "If you look at the old national standard of fire cover, we used to have to say that in a high risk area the first fire engine would have to be there in five minutes and the next two have to be there in eight minutes.

"So you'd have three fire engines there in eight minutes. If you look at the fire standards now, it's 10 minutes that the first fire appliance has to be on the scene on 80% of occasions."

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Health of firefighters is at the heart of all fire and rescue services work

A National Fire Chiefs Council spokesperson said: “Any fire fatality is one too many; and we are continuing our protection and prevention work to ensure the public face as few risks as possible.

“Fire Services continue to carry out home safety checks with the most vulnerable and at business premises, to ensure people are aware of risks and working towards reducing them.

“The current pandemic has had an impact on how these are carried out in some instances – along with education activities on areas such as arson. Therefore, it is vital people are aware of risks and mitigating them.

“At this stage, we do not know how Covid-19 will continue to impact our communities and the future numbers or types of incidents.

“It is as important as ever that fire services are funded for risk, not just demand. We must be ready for infrequent high impact events, as well as the day-to-day activities.

"The health and well-being of firefighters is at the heart of all fire and rescue services work, and any impacts of attending incidents will be addressed through their services."

For information on smoke alarms or to contact Merseyside Fire Sevice, click here.

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