The picture that shames Britain

As a man's body floats in three and a half feet of water, 25 emergency workers stand and watch because they aren't 'trained' to go in water

The busy scene on the banks of the lake appears to show our emergency services at their dynamic best. An air ambulance stands by as two specialist officers in yellow ‘immersion suits’ deliver a man who has collapsed into the water to paramedics at the water’s edge.

They attempt to resuscitate him inside an inflatable tent. A queue of ambulances and fire engines stands by ready and waiting near a small crowd of shocked onlookers. Yet the story behind this picture is anything but impressive.

This was Walpole Park in Gosport, Hampshire, on an overcast lunchtime last March when no fewer than 25 members of the emergency services, including a press officer, descended on a 3½ft-deep model boating lake minutes after Simon Burgess, 41, fell into the water when he suffered a seizure. But as an inquest heard last week, he lay floating face-down for more than half an hour while firemen, police and paramedics watched and did nothing.

The reason? Even though they could all swim, the first fire crew to arrive hadn’t been ‘trained’ to enter water higher than ankle-deep. Instead they waited for ‘specialists’ to arrive to retrieve his body. They had decided Mr Burgess must surely be dead because he had been in the water for ten minutes. When a policeman decided to go in anyway, he was ordered not to. A paramedic was also told not to enter the water because he didn’t have the right ‘protective’ clothing and might be in breach of the Personal Protective Equipment at Work Regulations 1992.

The tragic incident made headlines around the world, held up as a shocking example of ludicrously risk-averse Britain. And it prompted a coroner to demand that fire, police and ambulance services improve training to prevent a repeat.

Following the inquest, a Mail on Sunday investigation has now discovered that:

* The ‘ankle-deep’ rule was meant for fast-flowing water and is taken from guidelines drawn up to deal with floods.

* Other rescue agencies believe people can survive submerged for much longer than ten minutes – some will still try resuscitation at 90 minutes.

* The incident happened despite a previous reassurance from the Health and Safety Executive that firefighters would not face prosecution if they performed acts of heroism that break rules.

* Mr Burgess could have been reached within two minutes of emergency crews arriving at the scene – as proved by our reporter who went into the lake and waded 25ft to the spot where his body had been floating.

Mr Burgess had been feeding swans from a plastic bag that blew into the lake. He went in to retrieve it and while he was in the water he had a fit and fell unconscious. Last week, Coroner David Horsley ruled his death was an accident on the balance of probabilities, but said there was a chance, ‘albeit a slim one’, he could have been saved had the emergency services intervened sooner.

Fire station watch manager Tony Nicholls arrived at the scene within five minutes but refused to try to rescue Mr Burgess because, he told the inquest, his crew’s ‘Level 1’ training only allowed them to go in the water up to their ankles.

Hampshire Fire and Rescue said all its firefighters were trained to Level 1, which includes ‘general water safety awareness and basic land-based rescue techniques’. To comply with the guidelines, they had to wait for a specialist water rescue team to arrive. Mr Nicholls said these officers were ‘Level 2-trained’, meaning they could ‘go in chest- high’. Only those who had completed the Level 3 course would be allowed to swim, however.

Although it wasn’t made clear at the inquest, the rule about not entering water more than ankle-high is based entirely on guidelines drawn up by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for tackling flood emergencies.

A Hampshire Fire and Rescue spokesman admitted the service knew the guideline was originally intended as advice to be followed at flood incidents – but the service insists firefighters apply it in ALL water-related incidents.

A Defra spokeswoman explained: ‘Our guidance is only ever to be used by the emergency services in response to a flood. This is because floods by their very nature are highly unpredictable, unlike existing bodies of water. Our guidance should never be used in any other instance.’

However, the Government’s Chief Fire and Rescue Adviser, Sir Ken Knight, has included the Defra training recommendations in an ‘operational guidance’ document on water safety.

One of the police officers at the scene, PC Tony Jones, told the inquest that he volunteered to go in, but was ‘strongly advised’ not to by Mr Nicholls. The PC also told the inquest that Mr Nicholls refused to let him borrow his lifejacket.

Then PC Jones was told by his control room that ‘under no circumstances’ should he attempt a rescue. Asked to explain that decision, Hampshire Police said yesterday: ‘The fire service were already there and they were recovering a body.’ The decision to downgrade the incident from a rescue to a ‘body retrieval situation’ reflected the confusion over submersion victims.

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution said the only instances in which its rescuers would not attempt resuscitation would be if a body was already decomposing, or had been submerged for more than 90 minutes. Rescuers in the US believe a person can be revived after being immersed in water for up to an hour.

Professor Mike Tipton, of Ports–mouth University, concluded in a report for the emergency services last year that if ‘water temperature is warmer than 6C [42F], survival is extremely unlikely if submerged longer than 30 minutes’.

Chances of survival are much higher if water temperature is lower than this, but not if the body is submerged for more than 90 minutes.

He produced examples of people who had been saved after submersion of between 20 and 60 minutes.

Despite the safety rules, those at the scene could have entered the water under Health and Safety Executive guidelines that exempt 999 workers from prosecution if they perform acts of heroism. This follows Lord Young’s report, Common Sense, Common Safety, which called for an end to ‘senseless’ rules and regulations.

Last night, Fire Minister Bob Neill said: ‘Health and safety rules should be there to save lives, not put them at risk.’ He added that the Government would review existing guidance and take into account lessons learnt from recent incidents.


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