London Fire Brigade (LFB) has said 25 firefighters did not fail to rescue a drowning seagull from a 3ft deep pond because of health and safety concerns, despite stating: "We are not willing to put the lives of our firefighters at risk for the sake of a seagull."
The change of tack from the LFB follows a statement released by the Health and Safety Executive's new Myth Buster Challenge Panel, saying it did not consider the LFB based its decision not to enter Carshalton Ponds on Saturday to rescue a stricken bird on health and safety reasons.
Five fire crews were called to the ponds in Carshalton to assist in the rescue of an adult herring gull that was struggling to survive in the ponds after getting its foot caught in a plastic bag.
The firefighters did not wade in to carry out the rescue, nor a specialist water rescue team travel out to reach the bird.
They left before Riverside Animal Centre worker Adam Briddock arrived to wade in to the water to save the bird in the nick of time.
The LFB has since claimed the firefighters did not act because the bird was not in any distress, so did not require an emergency fire brigade rescue.
This was despite claims from the Riverside Animal Centre, and the RSPCA to the contrary.
Fire sources have said firefighters are often held back by strict protocols on how animal rescues and rescues in water should be handled.
A statement released on Wednesday by the LFB after the incident said: "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."
A later LFB statement, released in the wake of a media storm over the incident, said: "The RSPCA called us out as an emergency. Our firefighters rushed to the scene only to realise they’d been called out to a seagull with a plastic bag round its leg which was swimming around quite happily and wasn’t in any distress.
"This clearly wasn’t an emergency so the firefighters left it to a local animal rescue charity to deal with and swiftly left the scene."
"Often, by the time our firefighters arrive at an incident, someone has waded in to try and rescue an animal only to get into danger themselves, so we send enough crews to deal with whatever we may find. The safety of the public and our firefighters is always our priority."
"Firefighters were not stopped from entering the water due to health and safety protocols. Just this week, LFB crews were called to rescue a man after the bulldozer he was driving fell 40 feet down into a quarry pit.
"When they realised the man’s life was at risk, the firefighters acted outside of normal procedures and risked their own personal safety to lift him out and save his life. London Fire Brigade’s firefighter are trained to make difficult judgement calls about when it is right to risk their lives in order to save another."
Their statement coincided with calls for the Health and Safety Executive's new Myth Busters Challenge Panel, a hotline launched this week to allow the public to ask if health and safety regulations were being wrongly imposed, to investigate the case. It was criticised for a delay in stating if health and safety protocol had been wrongly imposed.
A statement released yesterday by Judith Hackitt, the Chair of HSE, said: "We have now had chance to examine the facts in this case and it is clear that it was not about health and safety at all. The fire service itself has made clear that their decisions at Carlshalton were not based on health and safety factors. We endorse this view.
"The Myth Buster Challenge Panel has been set up to bring common sense back to decisions made in the name of health and safety, and to do our job properly we need to establish the facts. We will try our best to meet deadlines when we can but not at the expense of working on hearsay rather than facts. We said that we aim to make a response within 48 hours and it has taken us less than 24 hours to respond to this case."