How many firefighters does it take to save a drowning seagull from a 3ft deep pond?
Onlookers in Carshalton pondered this question after health and safety rules prevented 25 firefighters from saving a stricken bird, which had become tangled in a plastic bag.
The farcical scenes at Carshalton Ponds on Saturday saw five fire crews scrambled to save the adult herring gull, which was struggling to survive in the ponds after getting its foot caught in the bag.
But after a health and safety assessment when the five crews arrived shortly after 2pm, it was deemed it was not safe for firefighters to wade out in the waist-deep water to save the floundering bird.
After a stand-off, it was left to a wildlife centre volunteer to pull on his waders and walk out to save the bird.
Staff from the Riverside Animal Centre in Beddington were called out by the RSPCA to rescue the gull, instead of waiting for the arrival of a specialist London Fire Brigade water rescue unit so a “safe” rescue could take place.
Part-time staff member Adam Briddock, 20, part of the centre’s two-man team at the scene, pulled on a pair of waders and stepped out into the pond with a safety line, rescuing the bird and returning to shore within 10 minutes.
A member of the public became so concerned for the welfare of a bird they went home to get an inflatable boat in a bid to go out on the water themselves, but the craft was found not to be water-worthy.
An RSPCA spokeswoman described the situation at the ponds as “quite a scene”.
She said LFB arrived promptly after being requested to provide assistance because the RSPCA did not have suitable equipment to rescue the bird themselves.
But she said they left once they had assessed the situation they deemed it not appropriate for them to get involved.
She said: “We would like to thank the Riverside Animal Centre for their hard work in rescuing the gull, which we were delighted to hear was released the next day.”
Ted Burden, who runs the centre, said: “It was a bit ridiculous really. Five fire crews turned up, but because of protocols they couldn’t go into the water.
“It is health and safety gone mad really when you look at it, because the water was not really any more than waste deep.”
A fire service source said firefighters were sometimes frustrated by strict protocols, like not rescuing trapped birds, which sometimes did not fit actual scenarios firefighters were presented with.
The source said: “Although we have the facilities to effect a rescue, we are not allowed to do it for a bird. There is no leeway.”
The adult gull was taken back to the centre, dried out and fed, before it was released back into the wild the next day.
A LFB spokesman defended the numbers of firefighters sent out, saying it was a standard response to an animal being in trouble, and the firefighters were on hand in case a member of the public had tried to rescue the birds or the water rescue team had got into trouble.
She added: “We are not willing to put the lives of our firefighters at risk for the sake of a seagull.
"Our firefighters get called out to lots of different incidents and never know what they’re going to find when they get there.
“At any incident we need to make sure we have enough staff on hand in case something goes wrong and to ensure that our firefighters, and the public, are safe at all times.”