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Firefighters say rules wouldn't allow them to go beyond ankle deep to reach drowning man in lake three feet deep. Inquest in UK brings out similarities to Alameda, CA case.

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Alameda, California drowning coverage

Remember the controversy last Memorial Day weekend over the drowning in Alameda, California when firefighters weren't allowed to go into the water after Raymond Zack because of a lack of training and/or certification by the firefighters? A somewhat similar incident that happened before the Alameda drowning is making headlines in the United Kingdom as part of a coroner's inquest this week.

It happened at Walpole Park in Gosport, England last March. Forty-one-year-old Simon Burgess drowned.

Testimony indicates the firefighters who arrived to see Burgess face down in the water decided from a distance there were no signs of life and waited 11 minutes for a water rescue team. They cited health and safety rules that prevent firefighters from entering water more than ankle deep. The firefighter in charge also ordered others not to go into the water.

The news from the inquest prompted Telegraph columnist Philip Johnston to write:

How have we got to the stage where our emergency services are so straitjacketed by rules and regulations that they cannot walk into three feet of water to save a man’s life?

It would be easy to blame the fire chief for behaving like a fool, yet he was following a set of procedures that simply defy rational understanding.

Here's some of the news coverage.

From MailOnline:

A fire chief ordered a policeman and a paramedic to leave a drowning man in a 3ft deep lake 'because they thought he was already dead', an inquest heard.

Police Constable Tony Jones and paramedic Robert Wallace volunteered to jump into the lake but were given strict orders not to do so by fire station watch manager Tony Nicholls.

Adhering to force policy not to enter water more than 'half a boot' deep unless in a life-critical situation, he ordered his crew not to retrieve the body and to wait for the water rescue team, based at Fareham, which arrived at 12.31pm.

From The News:

Gosport watch manager Anthony Nicholls was the firefighter in charge.

He said: ‘At first I could not see anyone in the water and I had to ask members of the public to point him out to me.

‘There were no visible signs of life. I could only see a small part of him.

‘In my mind I’m thinking this person has been in water for maybe up to 15 minutes.

‘This was a body retrieval rather than a rescue.’


Deborah Coles, the control room manager at Hampshire Fire and Rescue, told the inquest that she took the call from Hughes at 12.17pm and, within a minute, had sent a fire appliance, a water rescue trained crew and a water support unit. She told the inquest, "The specialist teams are there to deal with water which is over half a boot in depth. At 12.20pm, the fire crew confirmed attendance and at 12.25 they told us a male was floating face down." She went on, "The water support unit arrived at 12.31pm. At 12.46, we received a message requesting our press officer attend the scene. At 12.52, an update came in saying a male had been recovered, and at 12.58 he was taken to hospital." Burgess was pronounced dead at 13.42.

From BBC News:

After the hearing, Mr Burgess's father, David, said: "We will never know if Simon could have been saved, if he had been pulled from the water as soon as the emergency services arrived on the scene or if it was already too late for him.

"When a loved one is involved in an incident like this, you can only hope that everything possible is done to save them regardless of how small the chances of success are."

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Comments - Add Yours

  • http://facebook Jackie N

    A really sad case, and some really bad rules to follow. I am not a good swimmer, and I know my limitations. But in the 30yrs of EMS—never put  in a position to have to decide this. How do they live with their decisions made?? So very, very sad.

  • 8truck

    I was never trained as a coroner so i can't make the call that someone is dead or dead dead. Go in get the man and try your hardest to bring him back, at least you know you gave it your best.

  • Darrell graf

    Response to post of Richard Wigfield, Bolivar Ohio
    I certainly dont know all the details, but your line of becoming part of the problem should never be an option" may work in a perfect world.  This statement indicates, to me, you may lack experience or judgement – as every time we respond to an alarm, there is risk.  We are in this business to take risk for life.  As i said, I certainly dont know the details, however there are other incidents ie. a downed crop duster with the pilot trapped and dying, and Chief woudl not let his crew rescue the pilot due to the hazardous material (herbicide you could bathe in) yet this man had to die due to lack of judgement, experience and conscience by Chief.  So in a perfect world, we would not have accidents,drownings, fires, dead firefighters or citizens from taking some risk. 
    Stand before the family as a member of the emergency service and tell them "we did not want to risk anyone to save your loved one".  Let us know how that goes over at the funeral home.
    Darrell Graf

  • mdff

    Is this what the fire & RESCUE service has become. Rules supercede common sense and the human urge to save a life. Sad sad sad. I remember back to the 14th Street Bridge Air Florida Crash when an attempt was made to save a life. A truly heroic event albeit unsuccessful. You have to try, because we must despite the risk. The public  has always put us on a pedestal because they expect us to take the risk.

  • EdG

    What's significant about the Brits is they always have a formal, public investigation of these kinds of incidents.  In the US, things die down quickly unless someone files a law suit.  Look how quickly the Alameda incident  became a darling of the media only to completely disappear a week later.  No public discussion of what happened and perhaps what should happen in the future.  Simply put, no checks and balances.

  • Laura HatoffThisse

    Wow! this is astounding, in my years of being in EMS I have always been taught do what is best for the patient worry about the consequences later.  “If you are going to error, always error in favor of the patient”.  While taking classes and continuing education for my certification, protocols often change, but many instructors have said, you must learn the protocols for the test, but when you walk out the door please put the textbook in the trash, because it does not apply to the real world.  If you are in the field of EMS or FIRE, when you leave your house to fulfill a shift of duty, kiss your family and children because you do not know if you will be back.  Sometimes in the EMS and FIRE world we have to make decisions that are risky, but it is part of the job of protecting life and property!

  • lt fd seattle

    1. Respond
    2. Perform a risk benefit analysis based upon available resources, equipment, training, and hazards.
    3. Mitigate the hazard- approved personal floatation device.
    4. Recover the person in the POND.
    5. Provide appropriate BLS/ALS intervention.
    Our company has recovered unconscious persons floating face down (twice now), performed CPR, and seen them leave the hospital alive and well. Declaring them dead upon distant observation would have been a diservice to their loved-ones as well as a failure of our departments mission "to protect lives".

  • north chief

    I love all of the rules be dammed people, how many of them would be willing to pay these guys paychecks should they get fired or suspended.  As we see in this website, the supervisors over us will screw us , public safety be dammed. We as workers are bound by the rules set by those over us, whether  we like it or not. (see DCFD controversy)  It is not Utopia out there folks, you will get screwed for not playing by the rules, fair or not. It's easy to say "I would have". Its not so easy when you are standing there. Sadly the rulemakers have made the decisions for us. In todays economics the decision of risking our lives has taken an unfortunate turn into , if i take this risk and violate the rules will i lose my job? It is a fact of our world, sad but true.

    • RJ (in florida)

      good point, look at Philly…get hurt at a fire…get suspended

  • Molly

    I'm betting that no one knew the water depth until either during the actual recovery or after the whole thing. The first fire crew on scene probably had no idea of the depth at the persons location, which would have made the risks to the untrained and unequiped responders seem much greater.

  • not right

    This is becoming a problem. Fire Fighters want to have staffing increases and lobby for better sleeping quarters but when it comes to doing this job we hide behid the safety rules. You are 911 people, the number to call to handle the problem, not to watch it. I have read how water is as dangerous as a confined space and you cant just run into it and on and on, yet you don't bring up that its a part of this job? This safety mind set is killing our reputation. Anyone can watch someone die, its easy. Doing something that matters is our job. Please do not throw confined space into this discussion, I am talking about response areas in your first due and hazards that you know exist. Justify your new big screen TV over some Water Gear and a couple (6 or 8) hours of training. The Fire Rescue Service is becoming a giant business of legal debates run by number crunchers that do not have to arrive on a scene with these choices to make. This is not a local failure is a system failure. I feel more sorrow for the Fire Rescue People who were there then the family, they know that this is wrong and cant do anything about it cause some college grad worked out the numbers and its not our job to take a risk for this guy. However, you all eat king crab legs and dont give a dam that someone nearly dies to get them to red lobster, in fact some die every year for you dinner, care to protect them and stop eating crab legs? This business is dangerous and you need to take risks from time to time, it why they pay you. If this mind set was used in combat we all would speak german now….

  • RJ (in florida)

    we had a similar incident here where EMS arrived before fire rescue and they didnt enter the water (deep pond) because they had no rescue equipment or training. The FD arrived and pulled out the DOA's and then the media and public went to work on EMS.
    My response to the critics in the public fourm was,"the first rule of RESCUE is dont become a victim" followed by "what discussion would we be having now if the ems crew went in, rescued the people resulting in the death of a EMS crewmember and then a single medic couldnt perform the job and had to wait for another ALS ambulance and the people died?
    Bottom line-If you are not trained to do a task, dont do it
    Now i get that 3ft of water was not particually hazardous to the rescuers but as usual there is probibly a Paul Harvey "rest of the story" here and its yet to be told
    If you have to question yourself on a course of action (like standing in the door of a flying airplane and you aint wearin a chute)…sit and wait for experts

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  • ukfbbuff

    Unfortunately some things done in the UK Fire Services seem to be opposite of what WE do over here.
    Previously I've read where firefighters were written up on chages for using an AED on a Full Arrest Patient and FBU decertification of their USAR Team members because they attended
    This issue has been discussed previously on the Fire Bridages Union Website and their is a document that was procuded after the flood ing that occured several years ago. The results were;
    Insufficent Training both Local and Regional levels.
    So this has gone on to a "Inquiry" as the Alameda, California incident.
    In Alameda, you had a scandel from, discontinuing the Water Rescue Team, that had gotten some FY funding, but the "Chief"  at that  time had other "issues" didn't fund it and it took the loss of  life in order to Restore the Team, after a New Chief was brought on board.