Care home owner blamed for blaze that cost 14 lives

A NURSING home owner was yesterday blamed for the deaths of 14 elderly residents in a fire by the local health board’s legal team.

Gerry Coll, advocate for NHS Lanarkshire, said health board inspectors should not be blamed for lapses in fire safety procedures at Rosepark Care Home, where 14 residents died in January 2004.

Instead, the home’s owner, Thomas Balmer, must take responsibility for not carrying out drills and maintenance as laid out in health and safety training videos, Mr Coll told a fatal accident inquiry at Hamilton Sheriff Court.

Mr Coll said inspectors depended on Mr Balmer and his staff to do what they promised by way of fire safety at the Uddingston home.

He said Mr Balmer had instructed staff to check first for false alarms if the smoke detectors sounded instead of immediately calling the fire brigade – contrary to the procedure laid out in a health and safety video used to train new staff.

Records of fire drills and maintenance were also “discarded or corrected”, said Mr Coll, and inspectors had to rely on the testimony of staff that may reflect official policy as opposed to what actually happened in practice.

Mr Coll said: “There is evidence that Mr Balmer countermanded the message of the video to call 999 immediately by instructing staff to check for a fire first. This was the procedure followed by staff, but was corrected by two firefighters. However, the procedure did not change in response to this.

“The inspectors were robust and thorough in their investigations but cannot be held responsible for the running of the home under Mr Balmer.

“Records were discarded by the matron and some records were corrected. Lanarkshire Health Board relies on the evidence of paper records and the questioning of staff, whose answers must be taken in good faith.”

Louise Gallagher, counsel for Mr Balmer, his wife Anne and son Alan, co-owners of Rosepark, made no new submissions to the inquiry.

Yesterday’s hearing on the final written submissions by the Crown and other legal representatives marks the penultimate stage in Scotland’s longest fatal accident inquiry, which heard evidence from November 2009 until August last year.

Sheriff Principal Brian Lockhart said he would return his final determination on the tragedy as soon as possible.

The blaze, which began in a linen cupboard in the early hours of January 31, 2004, claimed the lives of 14 elderly residents.

Attempts to prosecute the Balmer family over the fire have collapsed.

In 2007, a criminal case against the trio on safety breaches was dropped after the judge dismissed the charges on a legal technicality.

The Balmers’ partnership, under which they ran the home at the time of the blaze, was dissolved in 2005 and replaced by a limited company, Balmer Care Homes, which meant they could not be prosecuted.

The Crown launched an appeal, but this was rejected in July 2008. A fresh indictment was served in September 2008, but the charges were dropped.

James Wolffe QC, representing the Crown, also put it to the sheriff yesterday that, based on evidence heard during the inquiry, he should accept that installing fire dampers in the home’s ventilation system would have been a “reasonable precaution” to prevent the tragedy. However, he said there was no certainty that the absence of dampers had played a significant role in the residents’ deaths.

The inquiry heard that fire dampers were never fitted at Rosepark, although they were illustrated in the home’s building plans. The safety devices are activated in the event of a fire alarm to seal off sections of a ventilation shaft to prevent smoke travelling from one part of a building to another.

The engineer who installed the ventilation system told the inquiry he had never heard of fire dampers and no-one who inspected the home ever checked if they had been installed.

Mr Wolffe told the hearing that it was a “lively possibility that fire dampers may have made a difference”, but was probably less significant than other risk factors, such as the practice of propping some residents’ bedroom doors open overnight.