Following a fire at a warehouse in Atherstone-on-Stour in November 2007, three Fire Service Managers were charged with gross negligence manslaughter after four firefighters died in the blaze. Station Manager, Timothy Woodward, and Watch Managers Adrian Ashley and Paul Simmons, were charged. The prosecution alleged that fire fighters John Averis, Ashley Stephens, Darren Yates-Bradley and Ian Reid were killed after being instructed to enter the storage area of the warehouse to put out the blaze despite the building containing no people in need of rescue, and entering the building being an obvious risk. However, early on in the proceedings, Mr Simmons was acquitted of the charge following a direction from the trial Judge that there was no case to answer. The remaining two defendants were subsequently acquitted at the end of the case. The investigation and prosecution are reported to have cost £4.6m.
Graeme Smith, Chief Fire Officer for Warwickshire Fire and Rescue Service criticised the decision to prosecute the officers and highlighted that despite evidence showing that the fire was deliberately started, no one has been charged with arson whilst three innocent fire officers found themselves in the dock. The President of the Chief Fire Officers Association, Lee Howell, welcomed the outcome and confirmed their thoughts remained with the families of the four officers killed in the tragic accident. Mr Howell also confirmed that the CFOA were keen to understand the rationale behind the prosecution of the officers, the time the case took to come to Court and the reason why the person or persons who intentionally set the fire in the first place had not been apprehended.
Warwickshire County Council, which is responsible for the county’s fire service, had earlier pleaded guilty to charges under Section 2(1) HSWA of failing to ensure the health and safety of their employees in relation to the incident. The plea was made on a limited basis and sentencing is listed to take place at a hearing due to start on 3 December.