Manchester Arena Inquiry: Fire service boss admits 'gross failings' in its response

Video report by Correspondent Amy Welch

The man in charge of Greater Manchester's Fire Service when the Manchester Arena was bombed has admitted there was a gross failing in its response.

Peter O'Reilly told the public inquiry that firefighters could and should have been on the scene within four minutes. Instead they did not arrive for two hours and six minutes.He said he realised he had personally failed in the response when he saw TV images in his command room of ambulances arriving at about midnight.

He said the principal reason for the delay was "communications or lack thereof", which included failings by various agencies and from individuals within Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS).

Mr O'Reilly said it left GMFRS operating and making decisions in an "information vacuum".

Paul Greaney QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked: "Do you include yourself as having failed in any respect that night?"

Mr O'Reilly replied: "Absolutely. The obvious is always easiest to explain. When I went into the command room that night and spoke to the individuals, there was a mixture of fright, a mixture of disappointment and a mixture of confusion is the only way I could describe it.

Mr Greaney said: "You mean that you failed to ensure immediate deployment at that point?"

The witness said: "Yes."

Mr O'Reilly moved to GMFRS in 2011 after he had joined the service in Northern Ireland in 1990, where he had been an incident commander at a number of major incidents, the inquiry was told.

Following the bombing on May 22 2017, he had a discussion with Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, in which he told him "that as a firefighter it would kill me if I found out that we could have saved more people by getting there quicker but I also know that the FBU (Fire Brigades Union) and the HSE (Health and Safety Executive) would have had me in the dock if firefighters had been sent directly to the scene and had been killed by a terrorist".

Mr O'Reilly told Mr Greaney that was "a statement of fact" but denied that fear ever featured in his thoughts on the night while making decisions.

Mr Greaney asked whether the fire and rescue service had a different approach to the balancing of risk than other emergency services which went into the City Room foyer soon after Salman Abedi detonated his bomb at 10.31pm and killed 22 people and injured hundreds.

Mr O'Reilly said: "I don't because GMFRS and our partners, we missed many opportunities to be there immediately. All I can say to you is this - I am 100% sure that if you would have had firefighters on that scene at that time, every one of them bar none would have been in that City Room."

Mr O'Reilly, who retired from GMFRS in February 2018, said the fire and rescue service could and should have been at the arena in about four minutes instead of arriving outside Victoria rail station, adjoining the arena, some two hours and six minutes after the blast.

Mr Greaney said: "Even then, as you will know, firefighters didn't enter the station for a further 13 minutes and even then did so despite of command and not because of it. Do you agree that represents not just a failure in response but a gross failure in response?"

Mr O'Reilly replied: "If I could find stronger words I would use them but yes."

Resuming questioning on Tuesday, Peter O'Reilly says he naively assumed regular firefighters were already at the scene and that specialist ones were being held back at Philip's Park fire station 3 miles away.

Mr O'Reilly was told there had been an explosion at 11.08pm & arrived at the command support room at 11.49pm. There was "utter confusion" and it was a source of "shock and surprise" when they turned on the tv and saw ambulances at the Arena. "It was a very surreal moment."

At this point Mr O'Reilly accepts Fire crews should have immediately been deployed. Instead it was another hour before they arrived at the Arena. He described the decision as one of "deep personal regret."

"That's something that will live with me for the rest of my life."

When Peter O'Reilly was asked about his decision not to deploy once he found out Ambulances were there, he said: "I knew that I had let everybody down especially those that needed our help the most.

"And I had let them down because I hadn't acted on instinct and diverted those resources to the scene."

Mr O'Reilly is asked about his management style. He says he had an 'open door policy' but was aware that some people found him intimidating.

He says he can be "democratic & inclusive but also autocratic when decisions need to be made".

Mr O'Reilly was then asked about the decision to only deploy 12 regular firefighters to the scene despite several senior officers disagreeing with him and wanting specialists to be sent. He says 12 regular firefighters is what the ambulance service were asking for.

A phone call is played between Peter O'Reilly and Mark Dexter, GMP's firearms officer. Mr Dexter says there isn't a firearms threat and so it's the fire services choice whether they wear ballistic protection.

Firefighters are deployed.

It's now 2 hours 20 mins after the attack.

Mr O'Reilly goes on to say that his state of mind was "shock and bewilderment" and that he didn't deploy because he was trying to find out more information.

"That caused a delay which I will regret for the rest of my life."

Peter O'Reilly was then asked questions by North West Fire Control.

He blames them for not instructing immediate deployment but is pressed on why he didn't deploy once he realised ambulances were already there.

"I can't explain that. It was an absolutely failure of mine."

Mr O'Reilly says that the senior fire officer on the ground Andy Berry should have challenged the decision made by fire control not to immediately deploy.

Instead Mr Berry accepted their decision and then sent fire crews to Philip's park fire station 3 miles away.

Peter O'Reilly apologised to the families of those who died on 22nd May 2017.

"I'm so sorry. I will regret my failings for the rest of my life."