A FIRE station burned down after an overheated battery worth £14 set fire to badly-stored oil and paint, an official report has revealed.
To make matters worse, the East Lothian station’s smoke alarm rang for hours through the night but went unheard because it had not been linked to an emergency monitoring station.
The blaze at North Berwick fire station, last December wrecked two fire engines together worth £360,000 and the damage to the building is understood to have run into millions.
The official investigation into the fire makes extremely embarrassing reading for brigade chiefs who have now been accused of failing to follow their own fire prevention advice.
The Scottish Fire and Rescue Service also tried to keep its own investigation report secret and only made it public following the intervention of the Scottish Information Commissioner.
The blaze, which broke out just after 3am on December 3, was so severe the investigation report could not reach absolutely certain conclusions.
But the investigation rules out other explanations and strongly points to a rechargeable battery used in a firefighter’s radio which had been left on to charge in the station’s workshop.
The batteries, which can be bought on Ebay for as little as £14, can suffer “thermal runaway” if knocked, the report stated.
The radio was recharging on an oily work bench near to tins of oil and paint which would have ignited and made the fire more serious.
Investigators established that the smoke detector went off at 3.09am.
But the station is in a remote location and the smoke alarm was not connected to a central monitoring system.
That meant no-one was aware of the disaster until 5.10am when a newsagent arriving for work spotted smoke.
By that time it was far too late to save the building or the fire engines.
Among the report’s recommendations are that “combustible materials” should be stored separate from “potential ignition sources”.
The fire service is also asked to consider remote monitoring of smoke detectors in isolated stations.
When asked for the report, the fire service said they would only release it in return for a payment of £616.
They only agreed to make the findings public for free after an appeal was made to the Information Commissioner.
Eben Wilson, of campaign group Taxpayer Scotland, said: “You have to wonder if the brigade followed its own procedures.
“The fact that they seem to be unwilling to come clean on what actually happened suggests that they are embarrassed.
“They really have to do better both on fire control and information control.”
Scottish Conservative chief whip John Lamont said: “We all know fires can be started almost anywhere in the most innocuous of circumstances, a message the fire service itself tirelessly communicates.
“With that in mind, I’m surprised it tried to suppress this report.
“It’s crucial lessons are learned in the most transparent manner possible, and stopping the publication of this report prevented that from happening.
“It’s bad enough that this unfortunate event took place, but to attempt to stop scrutiny of it makes it even worse.”
A fire service spokeswoman said it was “categorically not the case” the fire service had withheld the report because it was embarrassed.
Blaming the move to a single Scottish fire service, she said: “The fact the fire report wasn’t released was a technical issue when we didn’t have a full team in place.
“We’ve always been open about it. Fire can happen anywhere, we’re not immune.”
She said: “We will never definitively know what the source was.”
The cost of rebuilding the station will be met by insurers, she said.