As we pass the six-month anniversary of the Hastings Pier fire on October 5 last year, Incident Commander Mark O'Brien reflects on the tough firefighting conditions crews faced at the incident.
Challenges faced at the scene
The principle challenge was access because of the structural condition of the pier. Due to previous close planning with Hastings Borough Council we knew there were no safe areas for us to go on, so any firefighting operations had to be done from other access points.
Many of the first crews in attendance live in the town, have grown up with the pier and felt a personal connection. They were understandably disappointed and frustrated that they could not actually get on to the pier to tackle the fire. However, they are all professionals and they just got on with the job.
We needed to consider other tactical operations, such as using Aerial Ladder Platforms from the front of the pier. Our Maritime Team also made a good attempt to tackle the blaze from the sea, and we were able to get underneath the pier at points from the beach.
These were really the only things we could do, as we recognised our options were very limited. Later on into the incident, we had a review of the structural conditions by Hastings Borough Council structural engineer who was able to advise there was a limited area we were able to access. This enabled me to then deploy a minimum number of crews to a designated area and set up ground monitors in an attempt to prevent the fire spreading.
By then, the far section of the pier was destroyed and the middle section was fully involved, but this was an opportunity for us to try to save the front section of the pier. Even though this was a positive development, it was still very limiting.
A few hours into the incident, a change of wind direction dramatically increased the rate of the fire spread. This happened while one of the Silver Command meetings was underway, in a meeting room within a hotel opposite the pier. By the time that meeting had broken up the wind direction had changed. Instead of blowing at 90 degrees to the shore it was blowing straight in from the sea, which caused the fire to spread more rapidly from the far end and straight up the pier.
It was always going to be extremely difficult to save the pier because of the access, wind conditions and wooden construction, but crews did a fantastic job preventing that last section being destroyed.
One of our tactical options was to call upon the assistance of the Maritime Team from Newhaven. The idea was for the team to take the service's light portable pumps out to sea and fight the fire from an RNLI lifeboat. They were able to put water on the structure, but unfortunately this had a limited effect. When the weather conditions changed, it became too dangerous for the crews to remain out at sea and they had to return to shore. However, it was a legitimate tactical option and it was worth an attempt.
Due to problems with water supply, we needed to bring in the water bowser, from Uckfield, which was used to good effect. It was not an option on this occasion to take the water from the sea, although at previous incidents it has been done. However, due to the poor weather conditions on the day using LPPs from the sea was not an option.
Southern Water was in attendance, providing advice about the use of hydrants and mains access. We needed to boost water pressure in the mains, as this was an issue for most of the incident.
There was a lot of public and media interest very quickly and a steady build up of passers-by. We worked closely with Sussex Police to set up necessary cordons and the police managed these, although this proved quite a challenge for them due to the large crowds that descended. The other issue concerning all agencies was the huge amount of smoke drifting across the town. We worked with the police and local authority to give the necessary advice for police to warn members of the public.
We were content that the fire was never going to spread to properties along the seafront. However, we were concerned about an underground car park along the promenade where cars were still parked. Crews were deployed to ensure there was no fire spread to this area.
Learning from the experience
The advice we would offer to other fire services is a reminder that piers represent a particular risk and particular challenges. Pre-planning is essential in making sure you have the most up-to-date information and that all crews are aware of this. The other vital thing is making full use of the benefits other partner agencies can bring to the incident.
Both the Coastguard and the RNLI were deployed due to reports of people on the pier, which later were found to be incorrect. However, they were happy to remain on site for the duration and fire crews were able to get nearer to the pier by going out on the lifeboat.
South East Coast Ambulance, supported by their new Hazard Area Response Team, attended as well as the water board. Due to the scale of the incident, as well as the disruption, political interest and characteristics of the incident, it was very much a multi-agency response. We were the primary agency there but we were fully supported by the other agencies.
Dealing with the media
Media issues went really well and it was clear early on that it would be a large-scale incident with huge media interest. ACFO Gary Ferrand attended, and he was able to offer me support and guidance and was able to deal with the political and media fallout. The communication between the Hastings Borough Council team and our team worked fantastically. This was a great weight off my shoulders; there was a professional voice in place dealing with all of the media enquiries.
Due to limited access on the pier itself, one of the ways we could attack the fire and hotspots was from underneath via the beach. However, the tide times dictated our firefighting tactics as the incident scaled down.
This was always going to be a challenging incident, what with access to the structure and wind conditions - all those things were going to make it incredibly difficult. The fact we were able to save the near end of the pier with no serious injuries to fire crews demonstrated it was a well coordinated multi-agency response.
We have since had positive feedback from the local authority and from the Pier Trust, who both praised our efforts in trying to save the pier.
I would like to publicly thank all the crews, who all worked extremely hard and did everything within their power to save the pier. It was a tremendous effort. Everyone was constantly thinking about other options. Crews were on scene for a long time and at no point were there any complaints about that. I was extremely proud of our crews - they all did a fantastic job in difficult circumstances.
The future of Hastings Pier
It has been reported that a firm of architects has been chosen for the possible rebuild of Hastings Pier. However, this will be dependent on the Pier Trust securing a multi-million pound lottery bid for the architects to move forward with their plans.
Posted: 09.35am, 23.05.11