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Revealed: system failure in fire death

By Helen Aird and Duncan Ross

Barbara Anderson died in the blaze in Hilton
Barbara Anderson died in the blaze in Hilton

A SYSTEM designed to safeguard vulnerable people in their own homes failed to work when fire broke out in an Inverness flat, killing 51-year-old Barbara Anderson.

An investigation by The Inverness Courier has revealed the Telecare unit in Ms Anderson’s home in Leyton Drive, Hilton, did not alert a call centre when the smoke alarm sounded. As a result no immediate call was made to the fire service.

An emergency call was subsequently made by a member of the public but Ms Anderson, who suffered from spina bifida and used a wheelchair, was declared dead after being rescued from the smokelogged flat by firefighters.

The reason the system did not work is unknown and the incident remains under police investigation.

However, NHS Highland has ordered urgent tests of the system, which helps the elderly and disabled live independently. The health board says it is a precautionary measure and that ongoing checks are being made to equipment in around 3700 homes across the Highlands.

Last night Independent Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie, a former police officer who knew Ms Anderson, said he was aware of the issue and believed a full review was essential to ensure no more lives were lost.

"I have received information that alarm equipment within Barbara’s house was either not connected or not functioning properly," he stated.

"I believe that an urgent check of all similar systems is under way and, whilst understanding the legal protocols regarding individual cases, I have contacted NHS Highland and hope to receive details of both the time frame for such checks and any additional advice given to users, to ensure further tragedies can be avoided."

Conservative MSP Mary Scanlon described Telecare as an essential component of modern home care support.

"We have to have trust and confidence in these products in order to support our elderly and vulnerable," she added. "I hope lessons will be learned and action taken to address any problems in the system."

The Highland Telecare Service allows users to summon immediate assistance. The equipment consists of a base unit and small transmitter, which can be worn around the neck or clipped on to clothing.

When activated, the base unit automatically links to a call centre in Aberdeen where operators can summon help as is required. Special smoke alarms can also be connected to the unit, ensuring the fire service is alerted without delay if there is a fire. The unit must be switched on at all times.

Yesterday NHS Highland refused to discuss the incident, citing the ongoing police investigation. However, a spokeswoman confirmed: "We have already taken a pro-active approach to review all Telecare equipment as a precautionary measure to check the equipment is functioning as it should and this is currently ongoing."

Bill Alexander, director of health and social care for Highland Council, said: "While it is not possible to draw any conclusions, it is entirely appropriate and proper that NHS Highland is taking precautionary measures to check all other equipment is working properly. I think people will welcome that."

Depute provost Jean Slater lives in Hilton and her mother has the system installed in her home.

"This will allay any fears members of the public using this system may have," she said. "If there was a fault in the system I would be surprised. The system is checked on a regular basis and it is an extremely good and reliable system, which I feel very confident and happy with."

Firefighters were called to Ms Anderson’s home in Leyton Drive at 7.45am on 6th August.

Ms Anderson, known to her friends as Babs, worked at Inverness Castle and latterly at Burnett Road Police Station as a courts and warrants assistant, taking early retirement in 2011. She had just celebrated her 51st birthday.

After her death, tributes were led by Police Scotland divisional commander for the Highlands and Islands, chief superintendent Julian Innes, who described her as extremely committed and loyal.

"Over the years she was with us she enjoyed the respect, friendship and admiration of a great number of colleagues both past and present," he said. "Barbara had to overcome a number of challenges in life but she did so with an optimism and cheerfulness that was an inspiration to us all."

Her cousin Dave Anderson, of Alltan Place, Culloden, described her as a "lovely, kind, genuine person".

Yesterday the Crown Office confirmed an investigation into Ms Anderson’s death, under the direction of the Scottish Fatalities Investigation Unit, was ongoing.

"The unit is currently investigating this death to ascertain the cause of death and consider whether criminal proceedings or a Fatal Accident Inquiry are appropriate," said a spokesman.

Police Scotland described it as an "active inquiry" and refused to comment. Ms Anderson’s family also declined to comment.

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