Wicklow County Council fined €350,000 over fatal fire

Friday 25 October 2013 22.56
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Firefighters Mark O'Shaughnessy (left) and Brian Murray and died fighting a fire in 2007 (Pic: Press Association)
Firefighters Mark O'Shaughnessy (left) and Brian Murray and died fighting a fire in 2007 (Pic: Press Association)
Mary Murray (widow of Brian) outside The Criminal Courts of Justice, Dublin
Mary Murray (widow of Brian) outside The Criminal Courts of Justice, Dublin
Hazel O'Brien (girlfriend of Mark O'Shaughnessy) following the sentence hearing
Hazel O'Brien (girlfriend of Mark O'Shaughnessy) following the sentence hearing

Wicklow County Council has been fined €355,000 for breaches of health and safety laws in relation to a fire in which two firefighters died six years ago.

Brian Murray and Mark O'Shaughnessy died fighting a blaze at a derelict factory in Bray on 26 September 2007.

A representative of the council pleaded guilty to three charges of health and safety breaches half way through the criminal trial last June. 

The first charge was amended to exclude a claim that the breaches had caused the deaths of the two men.

Judge Desmond Hogan said in his view the training provided by the council in the use of a new system was "wholly inadequate" and this was evident on the day.

He said the system of work used was "antiquated, inefficient and flawed."

While mindful of the fact that tragic deaths had occurred on that fateful day, that was not the issue on which he was passing sentence, he said.

He said a charge of causing the deaths of the two men had not been proceeded with and any sentence imposed today must be related to what Wicklow County Council had pleaded guilty to.

The families of the two men said they were disappointed with the leniency of the fines but said they welcomed the remarks made by the judge and acknowledged the fines would be paid by the taxpayer.

Firefighter representatives repeated calls for a national fire and ambulance service.

The judge imposed a €50,000 fine for failing to have enough fire engines at the scene and failing to have a proper communications and command system to call up additional fire engines.

He imposed a €5,000 fine for failing to update a safety statement.

He said the most serious offence was that of failing to provide adequate training and imposed a €300,000 fine. In doing so he took into account that the council would also have to pay €95,000 in costs.

At a sentence hearing in July the council had asked the judge to consider the cuts to its annual budget when imposing sentence. The maximum fine for breaches of the health and safety laws is €3m.

Fire described as 'time bomb'

The fire was started in a derelict building off the Lower Dargle Road when welding work involving sparks caused debris materials to smoulder inside the building.

The fire began 20 minutes after the works had been completed.

The trial heard that six firefighters were sent to the blaze, however there should have been twice that number.

One firefighter said it was like working on a time bomb. The scene was like a plane crash.

Others said it was like working in an incinerator, the intense heat had set their gloves on fire.

There was harrowing evidence from those who found their colleagues. Several times during the evidence the men broke down in the witness box as they described crawling through the fire to find the dead bodies.

The local authority's lawyers said because the charge of causing the deaths had been dropped, the court should approach sentence as if the deaths had not occurred.

A council representative pleaded guilty to failing to ensure the safety of employees by ensuring there were enough fire engines available and that there was an adequate central command system to call up fire crews from other stations.

The council also admitted failing to review an outdated safety statement and failing to provide adequate training in a new foam system.

Senior Counsel Aileen Donnelly asked the court to accept they were not deliberate breaches and that the council regretted them and had remedied them since the fatal fire.

She said the authority had a duty to provide services to the county and that since 2008 its budget had been reduced by 29%. Wicklow had the smallest budget of all the local authorities in the greater Dublin area.

She said the maximum fine was €3m under health and safety law but it was there for major multinational companies.

The council should not be penalised to the point that it could not pay, she said.

Speaking after the sentencing hearing, Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Authority Martin O'Halloran said: "This case highlights the importance of having safe systems of work and updated safety statements in place as well as appropriate training for the work being carried out.

"It is vitally important that every employer ensures, so far as is reasonably practicable, the safety, health and welfare at work of his or her employees."