Belfast Telegraph

Edwin Poots urged to release funds as spike in blaze deaths coincides with a freeze on TV safety ads

By Liam Clarke

Fire deaths among the elderly in Northern Ireland soared during a break in Government advertising, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.

Health Minister Edwin Poots has been considering an urgent request for more funds from the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service for more than a month.

Mr Poots is under pressure to renew advertising funding despite previously announced cuts.

He has been considering the situation since March and a decision is “imminent”, according to his department.

Six pensioners died in house fires between March 6 and the end of April while the advertising moratorium applied.

A further two people — Betty and Deirdre McGirr — died in a fire where arson is suspected, bringing the total to eight in two months.

In the whole of the 2010/11 financial year, when “continuous advertising cycles” were running, there were 11 house fire deaths — just less than one a month.

An NIFRS spokeswoman denied a direct link but conceded “a TV and newspaper advertising campaign is a very powerful way of getting safety messages out there to the whole public”.

She added: “These patterns do occur every so many years.”

However, on April 12 Assistant Chief Fire Officer Dale Ashford said he had never seen so many fatalities within one group of people.

Mr Ashford was speaking after the sixth fatality, that of an 81-year-old woman in Belfast.

Mr Ashford said the Fire Service had met with groups of older people around 20 times since the start of the year, as well as having provided leaflets and safety checks for some 200 homes.

The homes of all who died were fitted with fire or smoke alarms.

The most obvious variable was campaign advertising, which used shock tactics to remind people of the danger of fires in the home.

That finished in late January.

On December 8 the Executive announced a new clampdown on media advertising, which had already been slashed from £18m to £12m in the past six years.

Last November NIFRS put its advertising contract — which has just finished a six-year run with Ardmore — out to tender, but decided not to proceed with any of the applicants.

As a result it was only able to proceed with advertising that had already been booked, and which ended on January 31.

It has now applied to buy adverts immediately and to re-tender for an agency to work for it long-term.

“We got our submission through to the minister in March and he is now considering it.

“I am sure, particularly after the sudden increase in deaths, that he will give approval,” the NIFRS spokeswoman said.

A Health Depertment spokesman stated: “The minister is considering the NIFRS advertising submission and will respond imminently. It is important to remember that campaign advertising is only one element and the NIFRS have a range of communications channels which they use daily to inform and educate people.”

He urged the public to take fire safety seriously: “Check electrical appliances are turned off, don't leave chip pans unattended, be careful about putting out cigarettes. One fire death is one too many.”

Factfile

Deaths since March.

  • April 11: An 81-year-old woman dies after suffering extensive burns following a fire at a fold in west Belfast.
  • April 3: A woman (64) dies in a fire on Lisburn's Maralin Avenue.
  • March 14: A 90-year-old woman dies hours after a blaze engulfs her home in the Twinbrook area of west Belfast.
  • March 13: Peggy McGarvey (78) dies in an early morning fire at her home in the Linseys Hill area of Armagh.
  • March 6: Albert Kane (64) is found dead in his Ballymoney home following a blaze.
  • March 6: Sadie Ferguson (78) dies in an early morning fire at her home on the Dundrum Road, Dromara.

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