Carlisle hospital's fire safety sprinklers will not be fully installed until 2020

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A union has called for a public inquiry into fire safety at Carlisle's Cumberland Infirmary after bosses revealed it is not yet fully protected by sprinklers.

Three years after inspectors highlighted serious fire safety failures at the hospital, and two weeks after the Grenfell Tower tragedy in London, officials have confirmed that work on the hospital's sprinkler system will not be completed until 2020.

The system is part of a £14 million fire safety upgrade at the infirmary ordered in the wake of an inspection in 2014.

It will see the Outpatients Department protected by September.

The Government has appointed retired Court of Appeal judge Sir Martin Moore-Bick to lead a public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower disaster, which claimed at least 80 lives.

Attention has focused on the tower block's flammable external cladding.

The infirmary has no cladding but its ongoing upgrade was ordered after the discovery in 2014 of numerous serious fire safety failures at the 17-year-old hospital, including defective fire alarms, ill-fitting fire doors and substandard firewalls, many with gaping holes.

Responsibility for the building lies firmly with Health Management Carlisle (HMC), the private finance initiative (PFI) company that owns it.

NHS managers at the hospital insist they and their partners are doing everything they can to safeguard staff and patients.

This has included training 3,500 staff in fire-safety and appointing 127 fire wardens who do hourly safety checks.

The hospital opened in 2000, the first in the country built under a PFI scheme, which ties the hospital into a 30 or 40 year period of “mortgage” repayments.

It should have been built to stop smoke and flames spreading between wards and other rooms for at least 60 minutes, giving staff and patients escape time.

The 2014 inspection report revealed much of the building fell short of that standard.

Les Skarratts, a senior official with the Fire Brigades Union in the north west and Cumbria, said: “This demonstrates the consequences of cuts in the fire and rescue service in the area of fire safety inspectors.

“They're skilled in inspecting places such as schools and hospitals.

“They bring enormous experience to the job and can resolve issues through taking enforcement action. Patients and staff in hospitals such as the infirmary deserve the best protection possible.

“In a public area, the effect of a sprinkler system is immediate.

"In this case, there should be some form of public inquiry.”

Steve Johnston, branch chairman of the union's Carlisle East branch, added: “2020 is a long time to leave people worried about whether they are safe in a modern hospital.”

Former Carlisle MP Eric Martlew also backed a public inquiry, saying it should examine why a hospital used by thousands of people was passed as fit for use when it had such substandard fire safety measures.

“Why did it get a fire safety certificate?” asked Mr Martlew.

“There needs to be a public inquiry into how this hospital was built and given a fire safety certificate, and passed by the local authority.

"If there had been a fire there, we'd be looking at corporate manslaughter charges. We need to know what went wrong.”

Stephen Eames, chief executive at North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, said that safety was his staff's top priority.

 Stephen Eames

Stephen Eames

He said: “The trust has been working closely with our PFI partner to ensure that extensive fire prevention measures have been put in place at the Cumberland Infirmary since concerns were identified in 2014.

“Cumbria Fire & Rescue Service, who have monitored progress and provided support as necessary, has acknowledged that the trust and our PFI partner were working cooperatively to ensure that significant works have been completed.

“In addition, a sprinkler system is currently being installed throughout the hospital which represents a significant investment from our PFI partner.

“The safety and welfare of our staff, patients and visitors to the hospital is our number one priority and we will continue to work alongside our PFI partner to focus on completing any remaining works.”

A series of leaked documents from the trust revealed how managers at the infirmary were allegedly kept in the dark about the serious fire safety failures.

In one damning exchange between a trust manager at the PFI company involved, it was stated: “The problems have been caused by the PFI Company and its agents."

The documents showed how a senior hospital manager believed staff and patients have been exposed to unnecessary risk because the firm did not promptly alert them to fire-safety deficiencies.

Responsibility for the infirmary building lies squarely with the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) company Health Management Carlisle (HMC) Ltd, which uses Interserve to run non-clinical services.

The expert report on the £67m hospital building, written in 2014, said that its fire safety failures stretch back years and had the potential to put staff and patients at “intolerable risk”.

A HMC spokesman said: “In partnership with the NCUH Trust, HMC has been actively involved in investigating, reviewing and resolving construction or fire related issues at Cumberland Infirmary for some time.

"Throughout this review both HMC and the Trust have consulted extensively with the local Fire Authority. Subsequently a range of measures and improvements have been agreed to enhance the fire safety of the facility.

"Our fire safety industry ‘FIRAS’ accredited suppliers have reviewed and rectified the passive fire safety related defects within the hospital and have provided the corresponding certification to support the work completed.

"Further, the installation of a hospital wide sprinkler system, to enhance the fire safety of the hospital, which commenced in 2016, is a forward thinking and proactive decision jointly agreed between HMC and the Trust.

"This work, alongside other associated passive fire protection works, are being fully funded by HMC. We believe the fire safety issues, which were identified and reported upon in 2014 are by no means unique to The Cumberland Infirmary.

"Indeed they are an industry wide issue which many construction projects, undertaken in a similar time period, are having to address at this time.”

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