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Geoff Wicker, who was a retained duty system watch manager at Heathfield fire station, was on the eighth fire appliance to arrive at the incident at 2.19 pm. It would be appropriate for me to say something about the two firefighters who lost their lives. Mr. Wicker was 49 years old. As well as being a retained watch manager, he was a watch manager at the East Sussex
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fire and rescue service mobilising centre. He had served the ESFRS for more than 30 years, having joined in 1975 as a retained duty system firefighter. Brian Wembridge was 63 years old and was employed by the ESFRS as a media and administration co-ordinator. He attended the incident in his capacity as video technician for the service. Mr. Wembridge had given 45 years’ service to East Sussex, and he spent much of that time as a firefighter. He was appointed to the media and administration co-ordinator role in 2003.

I shall say something more about the incident. At approximately 2.45 pm, an explosion was reported. A roll-call of all personnel at the scene was conducted, and two fire and rescue service personnel were found to be missing. A quick search revealed the location of the bodies of Mr. Wicker and Mr. Wembridge. The injuries sustained by the other 12 people ranged from cuts and bruises to concussion, and all the injured have been discharged from hospital. At the time of the reported explosion, approximately 60 firefighters were at the scene. The Health and Safety Executive was informed of the incident at about 4.30 pm that day. Contact was made, and maintained throughout the next four hours, with the principal police officer at the site and with the Sussex police firearms and explosives licensing officers, who were also on site. A 200 m hazard zone was established, enclosing a builder’s fabrication yard where flame-cutting gas cylinders were thought to be on site. Following the reported explosion, the fire was monitored and was allowed to burn itself out. The first HSE inspector arrived on site the following morning, on Monday 4 December.

The hon. Member for Lewes mentioned my interest in the case, and he will know that I have been in regular contact with the fire and rescue service. The site is currently cordoned off, so I have not been able to visit it, but I can tell him that I am in regular contact with the fire and rescue service. I have spoken to the police, too, and I intend to visit the site shortly.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions about the investigation. I shall say what I can about it, but he will understand if there are things that I cannot say, because I do not want to jeopardise the investigation in any way. An investigation is necessary if we are to get to the absolute truth, so it is appropriate that we should hold such a full investigation. It is being led by Sussex police, and experts from the HSE and ESFRS are assisting. In addition, technical expertise is being provided by my Department, as was requested.

I shall try to address some of the hon. Gentleman’s specific points. He asked why the HSE licensed an explosives site near a place where gas cylinders were kept. Licences have to take account of hazardous materials and the foreseeable usage of any flammable gases that may be present on, or near, a licensed explosives site. If a licence is issued, a separation distance must be judged between the storage site of the flammable gases and the site of the explosives building. Distances are proportionate to the type and quantity of explosives permitted by the licence, and so are proportionate to the hazard.

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The acetylene cylinders to which the hon. Gentleman referred were on adjacent premises, and the ESFRS was aware that the cylinders were there, but the cylinders were not involved until after the reported explosion. The cylinders were then subject to heat and shock, which meant that, under standing operating procedures, an exclusion zone had to be put in place. He asked me whether I could confirm the date of the last inspection, and I can: there was a site visit by an HSE inspector on 11 October 2006. The hon. Gentleman mentioned reports and concerns that had been raised with the HSE about the site. I shall not go into all the details, but although a letter was passed to the explosives inspector responsible for the site, there was no specific evidence of wrongdoing. Nevertheless, an investigation followed at a later date in October.

I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that the focus of the investigation is to establish the cause and all the events leading up to the fire and the reported explosion, and to establish all the circumstances leading up to the tragic deaths of Mr. Wembridge and Mr. Wicker and the injury of others. On the hon. Gentleman’s other questions about the involvement of firefighters, the matter is subject to the investigation, so I cannot give him answers until after the investigation has taken place. It is not that I am reluctant to provide full information—I simply think that it is inappropriate to do so until there has been full investigation. I give him an assurance that it will be full, thorough, and transparent. The purpose of any investigation is to find out what exactly happened, and to learn from the investigation’s results.

That is probably all that I can say specifically about the investigation into the fire at Festival Fireworks, but more generally, there are strong controls on the manufacture and storage of explosives. The Manufacture and Storage of Explosives Regulations 2005 update earlier controls under the Explosives Act 1875. Anyone who stores more than a small quantity of fireworks, even for a short period, must apply for a licence or registration. As I said, separation distances for explosive stores are important to protect people in the neighbourhood. The local authority is the licensing authority for smaller-scale storage of less than 2 tonnes—it is the trading standards department in East Sussex—but in some areas, the fire and rescue service is the licensing authority. The Health and Safety Executive is the licensing authority for manufacturing operations and the storage of fireworks over 2 tonnes. Before HSE licences are granted, the applicant must obtain local authority assent, which gives local people the opportunity to comment. Councillors and emergency services, for example, can feed into local decision making, or object to the licence at a public hearing. The regulations place a duty on anyone who manufactures or stores explosives to take appropriate measures to prevent fire or explosion; to limit the extent of any fire or explosion; and to protect people in the event of fire or explosion. There are regular inspection visits.

As I said in my statement to the House on 7 December, we all fully recognise the contribution that fire and rescue services make to our communities. We should acknowledge the situations that they face on a daily basis—there are two Members in the Chamber
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who served as firefighters—and the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) made that very point. We should take every opportunity to remind ourselves of the commitment, professionalism and dedication shown by fire service personnel throughout the country, as they play an enormous part in ensuring the safety of our communities. The many years of dedicated service given by Mr. Wembridge and Mr. Wicker made a huge contribution to the protection of the people of East Sussex. I am sure I speak for all hon. Members when I say how grateful we are for their commitment, which is shared by many of their colleagues across the country, and for which they paid the ultimate price. As the hon. Member for Lewes said, responses and letters have come from across the country, including from many people in the fire and rescue services, expressing sadness about the tragic end to the lives of two men whose entire careers were spent trying to save people’s lives and protect others.

The deaths of fire and rescue service staff at operational incidents are very rare, but they are always a cause of great sadness and concern, which is why it is important that the investigation be thorough and detailed. We must establish the facts behind the tragedy. In my statement, I undertook to make a further statement to Parliament once the investigation has concluded. That is the appropriate time to give more details to the House. We must obtain all the facts behind the incident to clarify the situation so that we
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can learn what happened. We must learn the lessons for the sake of the families grieving for Brian Wembridge and Geoffrey Wicker.

Mike Penning: Does the Minister agree that it is very much the role of firefighters to save lives? If those firemen and their colleagues were taking part in a search and rescue operation, it was right for them to be in a dangerous position. However, no property is worth a fireman’s life—we must learn that property can be rebuilt, but lives cannot.

Angela E. Smith: I think that everyone is aware of that. Indeed, the East Sussex fire and rescue service is aware of it. The operation was clearly not intended to put lives at risk at any stage. The fire and rescue services are always aware that property can be replaced, but that lives cannot. However distressing it is for people to lose property, we must protect lives, including those of firefighters at all time. We should not expose firefighters to unnecessary risk.

That is an appropriate note on which to conclude. Our thoughts, both tonight and during the investigation, are with the families of the two firefighters who died. I thank the House for its conduct this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Eleven o’clock.

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