Today’s columnist, James Courtney: More could have been done

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The inquest into the tragic house fire where five people from the same family sadly lost their lives was conducted last month.

During the inquest firefighters were recognised for the actions they took that night, in what is without doubt one of the most high- profile fires my service has ever dealt with.

Now I wish to discuss a much less high-profile incident, but, nevertheless, one which we can still learn many lessons from.

This fire resulted in the death of Alec Connington at his flat on Manor Park Road, Sheffield, earlier this year.

The inquest into Mr Connington’s death also took place last month.

Alec died in a fire caused by smoking materials, and from which he was unable to escape despite his smoke alarms having been activated

After the fire, our investigators found more than 200 cigarette ends discarded by his bed.

Alec lived in a flat owned by a social housing landlord and was a heavy smoker who, due to some health and mobility issues, was known to some of our public service partners, but not to us.

As Chief Fire Officer, it is immensely frustrating to think that, acting on the smoking and mobility information alone, so much more might have been done to prevent the fire which caused Alec’s death.

If only he had been known to the fire service. Ultimately, any house fire death is preventable.

We know that some people’s circumstances place them at greater risk of suffering a fire in the home when compared to others, and that these people are more vulnerable to serious danger when a fire does occur.

This is why we attempt to target these individuals specifically when undertaking our safety work in the community.

The home safety check service that we offer allows us to visit the properties of vulnerable people, to put measures in place to help prevent fires occurring and also to protect people when they do.

Working together, we will educate supporting agencies, install smoke alarms; ensure residents have an escape plan and check to see if there are any current fire risks in the home that the resident or carer may not recognise, such as overloaded sockets.

In exceptional circumstances we can fit fire-retardant bedding, a special smoke alarm for hearing-impaired people, or even a portable single room sprinkler system.

I firmly believe that if we are afforded the opportunity to visit a home and perform a safety check with the resident and any associated carers, then that person will be much safer.

We do have close links with other agencies but I think there is more our other partners can do to help us identify those who are most at risk of fire.

We can then put these extra measures in place to keep vulnerable people alive.

We already have established and highly successful referral partnerships which are yielding good results, but these can always be developed to be more efficient and effective.

Whenever someone like Alec Connington dies in a fire, it causes me and everyone in my service to reflect on what might have been done to prevent it.

In Alec’s case, and in others, the answer was “quite a lot”.

*James Courtney, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue chief fire officer