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Emergency services had ‘extraordinary’ disagreement on night of Manchester Arena attack, inquiry hears

Written by on 29 March 2021

The emergency response to the Manchester Arena attack fell apart because the services could not agree on where to meet, the chairman of the inquiry into the bombing has suggested.

Greater Manchester Police nominated the cathedral car park as a rendezvous point for all the emergency services, but none of them used it, the inquiry was told.

The fire service decided the car park, less than half a mile from the arena, was too close to the attack, and sent its appliances to their own fire station in Phillips Park – three and a half miles away.

Emergency services at the scene of the Manchester Arena bombing Image: Emergency services at the scene of the Manchester Arena bombing couldn’t agree on a rendezvous location, causing issues with the response, the inquiry heard

North West Ambulance Service sent paramedics to a different fire station, half a mile away in Thompson Street, and the police self-deployed straight to the arena.

As a result, the fire service turned up more than two hours after the attack and were not available to help carry the 38 casualties from the City Room foyer where the bomb went off.

Sir John Saunders QC, chairman of the inquiry, said: “The [police] force duty officer said cathedral car park, as I understand no one went there at all.

“He was nominating it, he wasn’t asking for agreement. No one had the same rendezvous point and they did not attend the same point.

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“It seems quite extraordinary. No one was agreeing anything.”

Ambulance paramedics only entered the station concourse to treat their first “priority one” casualty 46 minutes after the explosion, leading to questions over whether more victims could have been saved.

No one could get hold of the police force duty manager to resolve the issue because his phone line was engaged and the three services did not have a joint radio channel.

The problem with the radios was resolved during a 15-minute discussion a few days after the attack, John Cooper QC, for the victims’ families, told the inquiry.

Police outside Manchester Arena after bombing in May 2017. Pic: AP Image: Police nominated a car park but fire and ambulance services did not use it, instead using their own locations to triage the response

The fire and rescue services have been in a nine-year dispute with the Fire Brigades Union over responding to terrorist attacks, the inquiry was told.

The effect of the dispute was that some firefighters had shown an “unwillingness to take part” in training because they did not consider that part of their role, according to the chairman of the National Fire Chiefs Council, Roy Wilsher.

Instead, each fire service relied on volunteers to be trained for specialist roles, going into a “warm zone” where terrorists could still be active.

In Manchester, the officer in charge was 21 miles away and got lost on the way into the city, arriving nearly an hour after the attack.

In February 2019, two years after the attack, Manchester’s specialist firefighters refused to undergo any more training and they are only due to return to duty on Thursday 1 April.

Mr Wilsher told the inquiry there should be a “single approach to risk”, but added: “If it is not safe to do so, firefighters should not put themselves in harm’s way and should withdraw from the scene.”

The inquiry continues.

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