A former head of a fire service criticised for its response to the Manchester Arena suicide bombing has blamed police for the delay in firefighters attending the disaster.
Peter O’Reilly was chief fire officer at Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Service (GMFRS) at the time of the terror attack on May 22 last year which killed 22 and left hundreds injured.
A report by Lord Kerslake, published in March, was critical of the fire service’s response after the blast, describing the failure by fire chiefs as “extraordinary” and “incredible”.
Firefighters only attended the scene more than two hours after the attack – even though crews heard the blast and were stationed half a mile away.
Dawn Docx, the interim chief fire officer of GMFRS, later apologised unreservedly for the failures in the previous leadership.
But Belfast-born Mr O’Reilly, speaking for the first time about the incident, told The Irish News he will “always regret” fire crews were not there within minutes but the service was left in an “information vacuum” because Greater Manchester Police (GMP) did not follow established protocols and national guidelines on how emergency services should work together during terror attacks.
Mr O’Reilly said amid reports of a possible “active shooter” at the scene, police did not liaise with fire and ambulance officials to help them assess the threat level and deploy crews accordingly.
Police didn’t live up to their responsibilities of having a conversation with the fire servicePeter O'Reilly
This led the fire service to hold back, assembling at a distance in case of an escalating firearms attack.
Mr O’Reilly criticised the Kerslake Report’s examination of the emergency response, saying it failed to properly question how police acted against guidelines.
He told The Irish News: “On the night in question, I believe the fire service should have been there.
“We had worked very, very closely with our colleagues in the ambulance service to train our firefighters up. We had trained our staff up to respond to terrorist attacks.
“They weren’t able to do that, simply because police didn’t live up to their responsibilities of having a conversation with the fire service. If they did, we would have been there.”
Mr O’Reilly, aged 51, retired earlier this year from his £155,000 post as chief fire officer.
Lord Kerslake’s report concluded the fire service was left “outside of the loop” of the police and ambulance emergency response and “strategic oversights” by police commanders led to confusion with other 999 services over whether an “active shooter” was on the loose.
Suicide bomber Salman Abedi detonated his home-made device at 10.31pm on May 22 last year, in the foyer of Manchester Arena as 14,000 people streamed out at the end of an Ariana Grande concert.
Armed police and 12 ambulances were on the scene within 20 minutes but there was a shortage of stretchers to ferry the injured from the foyer to a casualty area on the station concourse.
The panel of experts who authored the report state they are not able to say whether earlier arrival of the fire service would have “affected any casualty’s survivability”.
While a joint Strategic Co-ordinating group of emergency response services and others gathered at GMP HQ in east Manchester, Mr O’Reilly focused his senior officers at their own HQ in Salford, which played a “key role” in delaying the response further, the report concluded.
A GMP spokeswoman said: “The criminal investigation into the terrible attack of 22nd May continues.
“In addition, the coronial process is now being presided over by retired High Court judge Sir John Saunders and consequently we cannot comment further at this time on matters which the inquest may wish to consider.”