Following the judgement in Guildford Crown Court on Tuesday 11 April relating to fire safety failures at Gibson Court retirement home that resulted in the death of an elderly woman, it’s plain that enforcement agencies will no longer tolerate companies operating inadequate fire risk assessments and policies.
Irene Cockerton died of smoke inhalation and her body was found in a wardrobe following the blaze at Gibson Court in Hinchley Wood, Surrey back in 2011. The fire started on 30 September when another resident’s TV ignited, but there was no clear evacuation procedure, Guildford Crown Court was told.
FirstPort (formerly Peverel Management Services), the residential property management group, pleaded guilty to four charges resulting in the large fine including failure to create a suitable and sufficient risk assessment, failure to take general fire precautions and failure to implement suitable fire system maintenance. The company pleased guilty to the offences under the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order 2005.
Passing sentence, His Honour Judge Climie commended firefighters for their bravery in difficult circumstances on the night of the fire.
This prosecution comes less than two weeks after a £100,000 fine for a care home in Somerset for breaching fire safety regulations and days after two lives were taken during the devastating fire at Newgrange Care Home on Saturday 8 April, with three more people needing hospital treatment for burns and smoke inhalation.
Duty of Care
The relevant fire legislation across the UK calls for a Duty of Care that requires a ‘suitable and sufficient’ risk assessment to identify the fire precautions needed and the implementation of appropriate arrangements in terms of effective planning, organisation, control, monitoring, maintenance and review of these preventative and protective measures.
By law, the designated ‘responsible person’ in a premises is accountable for the adequacy of their company’s fire risk assessment, rather than the assessor. To meet this requirement, where the ‘responsible person’ doesn’t consider that they have the required skills, they must consider the competence of any external organisation employed to carry out the work.
“The fine imposed in this case is one of the biggest that we know of for a breach of fire safety regulations, and we hope that it sends a clear message to businesses that they must take seriously their responsibilities to keep people safe from fire,” urged Nigel Gray, assistant group commander for the Surrey Fire and Rescue Service.
Nigel Howell, the CEO of FirstPort, commented: “We’re sincerely sorry for and deeply regret the fire at Gibson Court in 2011 that had the most tragic of consequences. Our thoughts remain with the family of Mrs Cockerton through what must have been a very difficult time. Now that the case is concluded, I will be writing to them personally.”
Howell added: “As a company, we have co-operated fully with the investigations, accepted our responsibility and entered guilty pleas. We would like to reassure all our residents and their families that FirstPort Retirement is a very different company compared to six years ago. We have new owners, a completely new management team and, as the Judge has acknowledged, a much-improved approach towards safety including policies, procedures and training. Again, we’re sorry for the fire and have applied the lessons learned. Safety is our number one priority.”