Investigation launched into Dublin Fire Brigade handling of Portmarnock sewerage tragedy

AN INVESTIGATION has been launched into Dublin Fire Brigade’s handling of the recent Portmarnock sewerage tragedy in which two men died.

It is likely to take up to six weeks and was instituted by DFB because three crew were injured during the June 10 mission to rescue Alan and Stephen Harris. Two of those fire fighters only only returned to work Saturday. A third is due to return tomorrow.

All three had not been passed fit for work after they ended up being covered in raw sewerage during their bid to rescue Alan and Stephen. The Harris brothers died after they separately succumbed to fumes while they were working to clear a blockage in the sewerage system on the Drumnigh Wood Estate, in Portmarnock, north County Dublin.

Drainage company Harris Drain Tech director Alan, 45, was the first of the two to fall into the sewerage system.

Alan Harris of Harris Drain Tech
Alan Harris

He is believed to have been about half way down the 12-meter shaft when he collapsed. His younger brother and part-time actor Stephen, 32, raced down after his brother to try and save him but he too succumbed to the fumes. While Alan died at the scene, paramedics managed to revive Stephen but he tragically died two two days later.

Fire crew had to strip naked in front of onlookers.

Because three fire fighters were injured, Dublin Fire Brigade has launched an internal inquiry, which is due to take about six weeks. Sources say there are issues over why various protective or rescue equipment were either not used at all or only for a portion of the DFB’s rescue mission.

Stephen Harris of Harris Drain Tech
Stephen Harris

For example, although dry suits were at the scene, they were not used. This is because a decision was taken to send the fire fighters down to try and save the Harris brothers’ lives as quickly as possible.

All three crew who went into the sewer ended up being – according to sources – ‘almost entirely covered’ in raw sewage. They went down dressed in their standard-issue fire wellington boots, fire trousers and fire tunics.

While the trousers and tunics have certain thermal properties to give wearers some protection against extreme heat, they are neither fire retardant or water proof. Had they worn dry suits, they would have been protected against the sewage.

In addition, because there was no contamination suite erected at the scene of the tragedy, all three had to strip naked. Watched by onlookers, including school children, their colleagues then hosed them down.

They were later taken to Dublin’s Beaumont Hospital for injections and tests in the same ambulance.

It has also emerged that it was not possible to erect and operate the force’s Quad Pod rope haulage and harness system (pictured during a training exercise just days previously) to bring Stephen – the first of the two brothers to be brought up – to the surface.

Using the device greatly increases the speed with which casualties can be brought to the surface. Bystanders on the estate where the rescue was being conducted were used to help haul Stephen Harris to the surface because there wasn’t time or extra staff available to erect the force’s Quad Pod.

While the fire officers knew what they were doing, the bystanders who helped haul the first casualty up didn’t and pulled too fast. As a result, Stephen snagged half way and fell partially out of the rope hold he was in and on top of one of the fire fighters, dislodging his breathing apparatus.

However, when the Quad Pod was erected and a harness used, Alan was brought to the surface without incident. It has also emerged that the two fire engines and one rescue tender with a crane and specialist equipment sent to scene were each a man down.

As a result, the number of designated fire crew tasked with specifically rescuing the Harris brothers from the sewerage system totalled 12 – five on board Delta 61 fire engine, four on-board Delta 41 fire engine, two on board Delta 35 rescue tender and one district officer.

Because D61 came from Kilbarrack, which is a one-pump fire station, the vehicle should have had six crew on board and D41 should have had five crew on board as it came from North Strand, which is a two-pump station.

Fire crews practiced near-identical rescue days before Portmarnock tragedy

D35 should have had three crew on board as it came from Phibsboro, which is also a two-pump station.

While there were 12 crew designated to rescue the Harris brothers, a further six were designated to tend to them when they were each brought to the surface before taking them to hospital.

In addition, one DFB crew member was used to drive an advanced paramedic vehicle containing three National Ambulance Service paramedics. A senior officer later attended the scene.

So, of the total of 20 DFB at the scene, about 13 were directly involved in the rescue while a further six tended to casualties.

This contrasts with the estimated 19 DFB crew who took part in a training exercise (pictured above) just days earlier in the grounds of Dublin’s iconic Poolbeg Generating Station.

The object of that training exercise was to rescue a single casualty trapped and injured in a confined space, deep below ground. Three fire engines – Deltas 31, 32 and 11 attended with a total of 15 crew on board.

A further three fire crew on board the rescue tender Delta 35 – the same vehicle used in Portmarnock – are believed to have attended the training exercise.

In addition, a Dublin Fire Brigade district officer attended. The exercise was almost identical to the real-life incident in Portmarnock.

‘Number of personnel attending and weight of response to incident was appropriate’

Asked why fire crew had not worn dry suits, a Dublin City Council spokesperson confirmed there had been dry suits on site but said: ‘Following a dynamic risk assessment carried out by the incident commander, it was decided to carry out an immediate rescue to save valuable time in effecting the rescue.’

When asked about the fact that the Quad Pod was not used for the first rescue, they added: ‘The setting up of the quad pod would have taken up valuable time which would have delayed the rescue effort for the first casualty.’

A Dublin City Council spokesperson said: ‘Dublin City Council extends its deepest sympathies to the families of the Harris brothers who died following the tragic incident in Portmarnock.

‘One Fire-fighter who had his face mask dislodged felt nauseous and at this point is was decided that he and the other two Firefighters should be taken to hospital as a precaution.

‘It is reasonable in these circumstances that all three Firefighters travelled in the same vehicle. Additional Ambulances could have been requested at any stage during the incident

‘A total of 20 Dublin Fire Brigade (DFB) Fire-fighters/Officers attended the incident including a senior on-call Fire-Officer. The number of personnel attending and the weight of response to this incident was appropriate and in line with pre-determined attendance.

‘To help ensure appropriate resources are available DFB operates a minimum manning level which is maintained through staff management procedures.

‘This incident was not designated a hazardous-material incident (based on the data received from initial call). As a result, the hazardous-material unit was not mobilised.

‘All front line vehicles have a primary decontamination capability which was used in this case. The number of appliances and personnel who respond to an incident is based on the information provided by the caller to the control room.

‘There is a PDA (Pre-Determined Attendance) for each incident type which is dispatched by the controller, at this incident the response was appropriate and in accordance with PDA as stated previously.

‘In all training the goal is to maximise the learning outcomes, as a result the Officer in Charge of a training exercise ensures as many as possible can attend. The number of personnel at a training exercise is not an indicator of how many personnel are required at an actual incident.’

They added: ‘Of the three Fire-fighters who were referred to hospital for assessment, two are expected to return to their normal shift (on) 27th June. The third Fire-fighter has been confirmed fit for duty from Monday, 29th June’.

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