Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Problems highlighted by Penhallow fire

It's now well over two weeks since the terrible fire that destroyed Newquay's Penhallow Hotel and led to the deaths of three people. There has been plenty of comment since about the state of the fire service in Cornwall: these initially centred around the fact that Newquay depends on retained firemen rather than the station being manned 24/7 especially during the summer months and on the fact that both of Cornwall's turntable ladders were out of action meaning that they had to use one from Plymouth. Now it's not clear so far as I can find out whether these 'deficiencies' were in way contributory to the tragic loss of life.

Newquay's resident population is about 20,000, in the height of the season it could be 5 times that. So we have a situation whereby in the winter having a retained service to man the two fire engines seems almost adequate whereas in the summer with a population more akin to that of Exeter it would appear that far more cover is needed. But hold on a moment, comparing Newquay and Exeter is like comparing apples with oranges. The population of Newquay might rocket in the summer but the number of properties to protect is the same. However as Newquay has a high number of fairly tall properties used as guest houses and hotels then it could be construed that they pose a proportionately greater risk. But there again Exeter has much more in the way of industrial sites with the problems they can pose. An important point is that you can't reasonably draw firemen from other stations to boost the numbers at Newquay in the summer if it was to have permanently manned crews. So far as the Penhallow event was concerned there were only enough firefighters available to man one of the two engines and this brings to the fore a point I really want to make - for 99.9% of the time we get away with a facility that is underfunded such as the fire service because major fire incidents in our area our rare. But this fire has certainly flagged up the problems of cost cutting. It is a mammoth task for the cash strapped County to make a judgment regarding the size of the fire budget and whether economies can be made.

Another problem on that dreadful night which didn't feature in earlier news reports was the fact that the fire hydrants closest to the fire were inoperable and so water had to be drawn from some distance away. Now this really does bother me and should concern everyone. Whereas at one time the fire service would do all the regular maintenance checks on the county's hydrants nowadays this is done to a strict specification by a private company. It would seem that not only is there a problem with silt build up in the hydrant but that the salt air in a place such as Newquay can cause corrosion to a degree that the hydrants can't be used. This is a ridiculous situation and needs quick resolution. Apart from the time delay in finding a hydrant that worked reports suggest that there was a substantial loss of pressure because of the distance the water had to traverse. Our decision makers have a lot to think about, certainly the planned downgrading of the stations at Falmouth and Camborne away from 24 hour cover has been put on hold.

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