A TOP Oldham firefighter retiring after nearly 30 years' service has spoken of his "sadness" over how he believes the fire service has been "scapegoated" over the Grenfell Tower disaster which claimed 72 lives.

The first phase of the public inquiry into the the tragedy in London's Kensington borough on June 14, 2017, concluded that "many more lives" could have been saved if the advice to residents to "stay put" and await rescue had been abandoned much earlier.

Phil Courtnell, 56, who stepped down as red watch manager at Oldham fire station on Thursday (October 31),

told The Oldham Times: "I think the fire service has been made a scapegoat for the tragedy, because at the end of the day the fire service risked their lives to save the residents in that block.

"The tower block procedure has always been stay put, and up until Grenfell it always worked.

"What we now know in hindsight is that no-one appreciated it was going to spread as rapidly as it did.

"And that is down to (relaxing of) building regulations, and deregulation of fire safety regulations, reduction of services budgets, and ineffectiveness of local authority building controls.

"It's due to a build up of a lot of things due to cuts and the government taking legislation away and saying building owners will be responsible for fire safety and architects being allowed to be more flexible over the way they design buildings. It's obvious that no-one has kept their eye on the ball."

And he went on: "There should never be flammable materials put on high rise buildings as was the case at Grenfell.

"So it's a rather sad day when they blame the fire service. It's down to the buildings management, designers, construction and lack of proper controls, as I'm confident the next stage of the public inquiry will conclude.

"The fire service up and down the country have operated the stay put policy for a number of years. Grenfell wasn't the fault of the fire service. It was caused by what took place before - the modifications with cladding to the building. If they had not been made the tragedy would not have happened."

Despite his feelings about the Grenfell inquiry, the married father-of-two adult children, who lives in Royton, on the day of his retirement, spoke of his love of serving as a firefighter.

He has been red watch manager at Oldham Community Fire Station in Lees Road for the last seven years.

Phil began his career at a station at Philips Park in Manchester, before doing stints at Gorton, Heywood, Rochdale, Whitefield and Cheadle before coming to Oldham.

He said: "The job has changed but the way we turn out to incidents and the way we respond to them hasn't changed much.

"But we've noticed cuts in the fire service. The back-up isn't there and we don't get there so quick. There have been improvement in technology and equipment, like cutting gear on road traffic accidents, the hoses that we use, and the clothing we wear.

"In some ways we've advanced but in others we have gone backwards, but it's the same in many organisations. It's the way the brigade is managed. Over time you see the changing conditions of service and how things go full circle.

"I still love the job and turning out on the fire engine. I wouldn't be retiring if there was any financial incentive to stay on, but there isn't.

"It's rewarding when you've been to a road accident or a house fire and you save someone's property or rescue them. Afterwards you can see the appreciation on their faces. It's so rewarding."

Meanwhile, Phil and his colleagues and friends have been prolific fundraisers for charities and good causes, with their epic cycle rides in the "Blazing Saddles" team.

Last year, they raised £40,000 with a trip from Gibraltar Street in Oldham to the island of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean. That took the total raised by the big-hearted members of the group beyond £100,000 in a four-year period.

Although Phil is retiring, he will continue his membership of the Blazing Saddles team and in 2020 will be part of the team that sets off from the tower at the fire station to ride 1,300 to the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.