Monday, June 26, 2006

Herts burns

BUNCEFIELD. Smoke reached Continent.

FIRE ENGINE moves in among still dangerously explosive fuel tanks.

BUNCEFIELD oil depot, near Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire was the site of the biggest explosion and fire in western Europe since the Second World War.

It broke out early on the Sunday morning, December 11. Had it occurred later and on a weekday the effects could have been far worse, as the blast hit vehicles and workplaces. As it was, 43 people were injured. About 2,000 people had to be evacuated from their homes, many of which suffered serious damage. The M1 motorway had to be closed, and flights into Heathrow airfield twenty miles away were disrupted by the pall of smoke.

On the Monday morning more than 220 schools in Hertfordshire and neighbouring counties were kept closed, out of concern for safety. It was Tuesday before the fire brigade started to bring the blaze under control, amid fresh blasts and blazes in remaining fuel tanks.

The fire brigade had difficulty getting near enough to tackle the blaze, and did not have enough foam for the first 24 hours. Over 150 firefighters using high pressure hoses and foam were in action on the Monday, and it took about 75 per cent of Hertfordshire's fire service with help from other brigades several days to put the Buncefield fire out.

On March 28, despite months of campaigning by firefighters, residents and business owners in Hertfordshire, county councillors approved cuts in the fire service which meant closure of fire stations at Radlett and Bovingdon, up to 50 front line staff jobs lost, and fewer crews available at night or at weekends at Watford and Royston.

Despite the firefighters' warnings that provision and response time will be affected, Hertfordshire's Tory councillors insist the cuts will not put lives at risk, but will enable them to invest more in safety teams who focus on fire prevention. As though giving people leaflets advising them to buy smoke detectors could avoid a disaster like Buncefield, the causes of which are still being investigated. Fire officers already inspect premises and give advice on fire prevention.

Hertfordshire Fire Brigade Union representative Tony Smith said 40 people (like in Ali Baba!- RP) had decided that the other million in Hertfordshire did not need part of their fire service, and they were going to remove it.

"There is this thing about prevention being better than the cure but it's a bit more complex than that when you are talking about fires, deaths and injuries. There are far more people saved by the fire and rescue service through intervention than by prevention each year anyway."
"We're not against prevention but we believe it is the front line crews that make that relationship with their local communities and do that work admirably, all we want is a bit more support to do that."
"They are using this community safety task force as a vehicle to cut jobs, far more jobs are going than are going into this task force, the numbers just don't add up."

David Lloyd, Hertfordshire County Council executive member responsible for Community Safety tried to square the circle between economies of provision and safe cover.
"If the government hadn't said to us following the 17.5 per cent pay rise which went to the fire service, you've got to now fund it yourself and make efficiencies, possibly we wouldn't have had to look at the efficiencies across the whole of the system."

Arguing that the south west of the county had "a vast provision of fire fighters and fire stations", he went on:
"The whole point is that we run the fire service for the people of Hertfordshire, Buncefield is a good example as during that time there were hundreds and hundreds of calls that went on whilst we were also putting out the largest fire since the Second World War. What that goes to show is how well we can cope."

Note that "we". If there's credit to be claimed or honours going around you can bet the bosses will accept them. But the firefighters' reward for bravery and doing their best at Buncefield is to be told that not so many of them are needed.

There is good reason for adequate provision - Lloyd calls it "over provision" - of fire and emergency services in south-west Hertforshire, not only in its industries and towns, but its strategic relationship to the metropolis. The Buncefield fire did not just disrupt Heathrow flights by its smoke pall. Used by four major companies - Texaco, Total, BP and Shell - the depot supplied 30 per cent of the airport's fuel, sending it by direct pipeline. The fire caused fuel shortages necessitating rationing, and leading to cuts in long-distance flight schedules.

Mainline rail services from the north and north west enter London via Hertfordshire, and the emergency services have had to attend rail crashes at Berkhamstead (1969), Bushey(1980), Watford(1996), Hatfield(2000) and Potters Bar(2002).

On March 31, Hertfordshire FBU Brigade committee adopted four demands in response to the council's cuts:

  • Withdrawal of all 11 measures endorsed by the county council which would reduce front line service provision.
  • Confirmation that no other measures will be approved that include job losses, station closures, or reductions in appliance numbers, no changes in working hours unless agreed with the union, and no reduction in fire cover or attendance standards,
  • Agreement that sufficient firefighters will be recruited to maintain a minimum of five riders on all fire engines throughout Hertfordshire.
  • Acceptance that improved community safety provisions will not be at the expense of emergency response personnel and resources, combined with commitment to utilise the dual role skills of professional firefighters to deliver both community safety initiatives and emergency response cover from the fire stations in their communities.

There have been three short strikes to help concentrate the minds of councillors, and Hertfordshire firefighters have also visited the House of Commons to speak to MPs about their struggle. Some of them will be back again tomorrow afternoon, Tuesday June 27, joining other public service workers in a rally and mass lobby in defence of public services against cuts and privatisation.

For more information:

And for more on the Buncefield fire,
there's various places including
which has excellent pictures, and
an article on Wikipedia:



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