Fire chief haunted by inferno which killed a mother and five children in Neasden
- Credit: Pictures Polly Hancock and Daily Mail
The head of the London Fire Brigade has revealed he still remembers exactly where he was on the day a horrific house fire in Neasden killed a mother and her five children.
The blaze tore through the home of 41-year-old Muna Elmufatish suffocating her and three of her daughters and two sons in 2012 and was described by the brigade as “the worst in a decade” at the time.
Now, as the brigade has put forward plans to axe 13 fire engines including one from Willesden, London fire commissioner Ron Dobson has spoken out about the importance of protecting funds for fire prevention work to reduce the chances of such fatal blazes in the future.
He told the Times: “That particular day was a very tragic day, it sticks in my memory, I know exactly what I was doing when I found out about that fire because it was a terrible one.
“We were hosting the world rescue challenge and I was at the Excel Centre attending that when the phone call came through that told me that we had quite a horrific incident over in north London.
“But none the less, our fire attendance times on that day were good, our attendance times in that area are still very good even without this additional fire engine and our attendance times over the last couple of years have continued to prove that.”
The brigade has been asked to shave £13.2million from its budget next year and has already identified £5.1million of cuts that do not affect the frontline, leaving an £8.1million black hole.
The commissioner has put forward proposals which include axing 13 engines that were temporarily taken out of service two years ago and kept in storage for use during strike action.
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The Fire Brigades Union is staunchly opposed to the plans and says lives may be put at risk if fire response times increase.
But the commissioner, who has worked for the London Fire Brigade since 1979 and held the top job since 2007, said Brent would continue to benefit from cover from all 142 of London’s fire engines if the local pump is decommissioned.
“The important thing to recognise is that fire cover in London is not provided at a borough level,” he said.
“Many, many fires that take place in any of the boroughs are attended by fire engines from outside that borough.”
The Neasden fire, in Sonia Gardens, was caused by a faulty freezer and work to improve safety standards on household electrical goods, known as white goods, is another important area for the brigade.
“It’s not just about the emergency response times, it’s about the other things we do in terms of educating people about what to do in a fire, trying to influence the standards of white goods and other things that people have in their homes,” he said.
Last year the number of fires in the capital fell below 20,000 for the first time since records for Greater London began in 1966 and fire deaths have steadily declined since the 1980s.
The commissioner said the brigade can meet its performance targets without the 13 engines and other important areas of work will be impacted if the cuts must be found elsewhere.
“We are in a difficult position because like every other public service the money that we get is constrained,” he said. “I have to make decisions about making that money go as far as possible to protect London.
“These 13 fire engines have been out of service for over two years now and I think we’ve proved we can do without them.
“The money that we need to save is best come from there and not from other very important services we provide to the public that are contributing to reducing fire risk.”
Alternative plans to fill the £8.1million budget gap are also being considered.
These involve introducing “alternate crewing” – where one team of firefighters is responsible for manning a standard fire engine and a specialist fire rescue unit.
Mr Dobson, who oversaw the brigade’s response to the London 7/7 bombings, said: “My worry with alternate crewing is that the crews that I would like to provide our response (to a Paris-style attack) would be from fire rescue units.
“If they were alternate crewed then, potentially, if the pump attached to the station has been mobilised first then we wouldn’t be able to send the specialist crew to attend until the other engine comes back.”
Asked if this would leave the brigade less able to deal with a terror incident, he said: “Potentially, yes. If those units are alternate crewed it would undermine our ability to respond.”
The alternative budget plans have been put forward by chairman of the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority’s resources committee, Andrew Dismore.
Both options will now be put out to public consultation lasting eight weeks.
Four meetings will be held across London and, for the first time, the brigade will organise online public meetings.
London Assembly Member Gareth Bacon, chairman of London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority, said: “If you want your voice heard I urge everyone to visit our website and tell us what they think.”
To take part in the consultation click here