Local fire station crew could not have prevented woman's death

Averil Stringer, 76, died in a house fire in Penzance earlier this month
Averil Stringer, 76, died in a house fire in Penzance in June 2023 -Credit:Linzi Fletcher

Firefighters from a station half a mile away that couldn't send a crew when a woman died in a house fire wouldn't have been able to save her, an inquest has heard. Averil Stringer died following a fire at her home in Heamoor, Penzance, on June 19 last year from smoke inhalation.

An inquest into the death of the 76-year-old mother of two daughters, grandmother of three boys and great-grandmother of a baby girl, heard how a neighbour raised the alarm at 4.56am when he witnessed smoke rising from her home. At the time, her daughters Linzi Fletcher and her sister Krista Harvey, who has since died from cancer, expressed concern about the lack of availability of the local fire crew, and wondered if it might have changed the outcome for Averil.

The inquest held in Truro today (Thursday, May 16) was however told that if the local crew had been available they might only have reached Averil's house three or four minutes sooner when in all likelihood she had been inhaling toxic carbon monoxide for at least 20 minutes before any emergency services arrived.

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The inquest was told that Averil was on the bed in the front bedroom of her house at the time of the fire, which broke out in the rear bedroom of the property, and died from smoke inhalation which likely caused her to go into cardiac arrest.

Glen Beale, a fire station manager who investigated the fire last June, said it had been likely caused by an old portable tube heater fixed to the skirting board by the bed, fuelled by combustible material such as linen, the bed mattress and cover and even money that Averil had hidden under the mattress. He said the overheating low voltage heater would have started a fire, with toxic smoke filling the house faster than the flames would have spread.

He told the hearing that smoke might have filled the house for a long time before it even rose from the property and was seen by the neighbour. He said: "It's likely the whole house was already filled with smoke and it is likely the fatal smoke inhalation took place before the eyewitness made his phone call. It doesn't take too many breaths to affect people. It might only take one or two or three breaths of toxic fumes to bring in unconsciousness that would disable a person."

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Steve Swan, group manager with Cornwall Fire and Rescue Service in charge of west Cornwall at the time of the incident, told the inquest that three engines were dispatched to the fire as is standard procedure with house fires when people are suspected to be inside.

He said that the nearest on-call fire crew, in this case Penzance fire station, would have been alerted. However, on this occasion - something he said was not out of the ordinary because of the staffing constraints the fire service has to deal with - the crew could not assemble as one of the team members had made themselves unavailable by 3am so they could be rested enough to go to their primary job a few hours later.

Mr Swan told the inquest that as a result the call was passed on to the next nearest available fire station - St Just. Two other crews were also alerted and made their way to the fire from St Ives and Tolvaddon in Camborne.

He said that the St Just crew were at Averil's house within 17 minutes and 45 seconds from the moment the original 999 call was made. Within a few minutes of entering Averil's property, she was located, unresponsive and lifeless, was pulled out and CPR was commenced.

The inquest heard that the St Just fire crew carried out CPR on Averil for more than 20 minutes while an ambulance made its way and again for another 15 minutes with the paramedics until she was declared deceased. He said it was very likely that Averil had been dead already by the time the firefighters arrived but firefighters are not medically and legally qualified to say whether someone is alive or dead.

Mr Swan told the inquest that on-call crews are contracted to do a certain amount of hours a year between 7pm and 7am but can on occasion call in to say they are no longer available for the rest of their shift because of work constraints from their main job.

He told the inquest: "We do not have an infinite amount of firefighters who want to be on-call firefighters who also need to live within a six-minute radius of a fire station. We can have only a certain number of them available per station because of budget constraints, so we are reliant on what is available to us including in terms of the skill sets available per station."

Mr Swan said the housing and cost of living crises had made recruitment of firefighters, especially on-call firefighters, a massive issue for the fire service in the county, with rurality and geography also playing a part.

He told the hearing that in 85 per cent of cases (which is above the target of 70 per cent) day crews meet their 11-minute response time and on-call crews meet their own 16-minute response time. Only two fire stations out of 31 in Cornwall (at Tolvaddon and Falmouth) have 24/7 crews. The other 29 stations have retained crews during the day and on-call crews after 7pm.

Mr Swan told the hearing that recruitment was an issue for the fire service especially for on-call firefighters and the Covid years have changed the way people work, which is not always compatible with the constraints and sacrifices required for the role.

He added: "It is a big sacrifice. I take my hat off to them because they will have missed birthdays, evening barbecues with friends or will have lost pay through self-employment. It becomes tiresome after a while and for some people they realise it's not for them.

"We can't have fire engine in every area of Cornwall and be able to deal with every fire that happens. There are times when we will not be able to be there so it would be naïve to say that this scenario could not happen again."

He said that while an increased budget would not go amiss, the service's measures in place are proportionate to the risk considering rurality and geography in Cornwall. Linzi Fletcher, Averil's daughter, said that for her family, it was never about firefighters but about timings and whether having the Penzance crew available would have made any difference.

She told the hearing: "My family are grateful to the fire crews who risked their own lives to save my mum. No word can convey how thankful we are and how truly humble by their bravery. You are heroes. We are desperately sorry for the Penzance crew who were not able to attend for reasons outside of their control."

She added: "As a family we are full of praise for the fire service. You were there on your own. We feel let down by the ambulance service. My mum may not have been brought back and we will never know if, had the ambulance crew been there sooner, she could have been brought back, but they took 23 minutes to get there."

Guy Davies, assistant coroner for Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, said Averil had likely been overcome by the toxic smoke before any emergency services reached her house especially when all it takes to overcome someone is fewer than four breaths. He said: "The house would have been filled with smoke before the eyewitness saw it. It is likely that Averil died before the attendance of the first fire crew. It would not have made any difference if the Penzance crew had been available."

Concluding in an accidental death, Mr Davies added: "I commend the firefighters from both stations for their courage in entering the property and for their endeavour to save Averil."