Insider: fire response inadequate

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  • Burning consequences: Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service has come under criticism for its handling of the Robertson’s Drugstore fire (File photograph by Ryan Souza)

    Burning consequences: Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service has come under criticism for its handling of the Robertson’s Drugstore fire (File photograph by Ryan Souza)

Efforts to save Robertson’s Drugstore from the fire that broke out on its upper floor have come under sharp criticism from within the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service.

The East End establishment reopened for business within a few days, but the blaze on September 2 brought down the store’s roof, with a source telling The Royal Gazette that the building “should never have been lost in the manner we saw”.

All available firefighters were deployed, excluding the minimum of five required to remain at the airport, once the alert was called through.

But a litany of errors hampered the response once the team arrived at Robertson’s, according to the source, who maintained that the ladder truck should have been sent to St George far earlier.

Asked if firefighters had been reprimanded by the main fire officer for not acting quickly enough to contain the blaze, a spokeswoman for the service stated “categorically” that such a suggestion was false.

On the arrival time for the ladder truck, known as the Bronto, the spokeswoman said that “high-volume master streams, such as that on the ladder truck, are never deployed whenever there may be the opportunity to commit firefighters to conduct interior firefighting operations in the affected areas”.

But the ladder truck “absolutely” should have been deployed earlier, according to the source who spoke to The Royal Gazette.

The source also faulted the command of the operation, in which lower-level firefighters received “conflicting orders” and were subjected to uncoordinated “micromanagement”.

The source added: “They did their best with the directions they were given.”

However, some firefighters were criticised for their techniques at the scene, including the alleged improper wearing of hard hats, coats and gloves.

The source also pointed to a failure to cordon off the scene and prevent civilian spectators from wandering dangerously close to the burning building, as well as the occasionally haphazard deployment of water hoses, which in some cases were aimed against the building instead of through the windows to target the fire directly.

The source also said some firefighters appeared to spend time taking “photo opportunities” which suggested they were inadequately trained.

In response, the spokeswoman said that an incident debriefing had been conducted — with the information discussed appearing to be “significantly different” from the assertions made to this newspaper.

The cause of the fire remains under investigation, and the top floor of Robertson’s is to be rebuilt. Joy Rothwell, who owns the store with her brother Garth, has declined to comment on criticism about the fire service’s performance.

Judith Simons, manager at the neighbouring Oleander Cycles, thanked all those who came to help take anything flammable out of the premises.

She said people came off the streets to assist them when they were told to get out after the roof of the pharmacy had collapsed halfway.

“We evacuated and took all the flammable stuff out of the showroom. People from the street came to help and I thank all of those who helped.”

Ms Simons said she did not realise there was a fire until the smoke was coming from the back of the building.

“The whole street was covered with smoke and the fire service hadn’t come yet.”

She said she went to check that Robertson’s staff were aware of the fire and found the doors already locked.

“We had a lot of smoke and that kept setting off the fire alarms. So we kept the doors closed and the air conditioning on.”

Ms Simons added that when the fire service arrived, people could see the flames and they did not seem to be lessening.

She said: “They were relentlessly trying to get enough water.”

Adding that “everybody can play the game from the sidelines”, she said: “I think they did a remarkable job.”

Former St George’s North MP Kenneth Bascome repeated that the area needs its own dedicated fire station and police station.

“It’s only proven my point that we need to have a fire brigade on this side. I believe that the response time would have been that much quicker.”

Mr Bascome added that many of the buildings on Water Street are connected and this could cause “serious problems” if one of them catches fire.

St George’s mayor Quinell Francis said she had heard criticism in the community of how the fire was handled by the Bermuda Fire and Rescue Service.

But she said she could not comment further because she was not in St George when the fire broke out and did not know the facts of what happened.

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Published Sep 18, 2017 at 8:00 am (Updated Sep 18, 2017 at 8:58 am)

Insider: fire response inadequate

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