A LANCASHIRE fire chief has revealed brigade investigators face a "minefield" when they are called in to probe fatal blazes.

The lack of any legal powers has been highlighted as major problem by Lancashire's assistant chief fire officer John Williamson, who has been appointed chairman of a national working group set up to put together a strategy for dealing with arson and fire inquiries.

He has also written a comprehensive report on fire deaths in Lancashire during 1997 when 26 people died with nine fatal incidents in East Lancashire..

The report points out: "The fire investigation officer walks through a minefield dealing with complex problems for which there are no statutory powers.

"It is my experience that the "exploding mines" have occasionally come from middle ranking police officers, which leaves the fire officer vulnerable with no option to withdraw." Mr Williamson believes investigations are often flawed because of the system, says that in some cases police have even barred fire officers from the scene of fatal incidents. He adds: "The fire investigator has no powers to interview witnesses, regardless of whether fatalities are involved.

"I must stress coroners in Lancashire are most supportive of fire investigation officers and are keen to utilise our experience."

Mr Williamson also highlights the link between drug and alcohol abuse and fatal fires.

He said: "I cannot imagine that the situation will improve, in fact everything seems to point towards it becoming much worse.

"Drug abuse and especially alcohol use are all part of life today."

Mr Williamson's report also reveals elderly people are particularly at risk in fires with respiratory conditions such as bronchitis and asthma likely to influence survival times during early stages of a fire.

The report will be discussed at the first annual meeting of the recently-formed combined fire authority today.

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