The 10 questions that need answers
The Grenfell fire has vindicated many in the fire industry’s worst fears about several longstanding problems.
Not only that, a drip-drip of revelations is revealing a litany of other shortcomings – of the council, firefighting equipment and the government’s response, among others – that have shocked even fire industry insiders.
Here are 10 of the most pressing questions that need satisfactory answers if councils, the government, the construction industry and the fire sector can work together to prevent similar tragedies happening again.
1. Why are cladding tests limited to one type of cladding when several other varieties could be combustible too?
More than 200 cladding samples taken from high-rise tower blocks in 54 local authorities since the Grenfell tragedy have failed tests, according to the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).
However, testing has been limited to aluminium composite material panels – those implicated in the Grenfell fire – even though other varieties of cladding may be similarly combustible. Niall Rowan, COO of the Association for Specialist Fire Protection, told The Independent that non-aluminium cladding systems, such as CEP and Carea, would also fail government tests. “I would put money on it,” he said. “They are different materials to the Reynobond but they would all have a similar reaction to fire under the fire test.”
“The Government’s gone chasing after cladding and missing the bigger picture – they are saying: ‘We want limited combustibility,’ but the construction industry has been reading building regulations as Euroclass B for years.” Niall Rowan, COO, ASFP
Rowan also pointed out that the government’s testing scheme has used a more rigourous combustibility grade – ‘A2’ or ‘limited combustibility’ – than stipulated in Approved Document B, which only prescribes class 0 (Euroclass B), a lower threshold.
“The Government’s gone chasing after cladding and missing the bigger picture – they are saying: ‘We want limited combustibility,’ but the construction industry has been reading building regulations as Euroclass B for years.
“This is why we have been pushing for a review of the building regulations for years and why many in the fire sector are very angry because this should not have happened.”
2. Why were the lessons from Lakanal ignored?
The coroner’s report into the Lakanal House fire that was published in 2013 is widely seen as an opportunity missed to rectify myriad problems with fire safety in social housing and high-rise residential blocks.
Six people died in the 2009 fire at Lakanal House in southeast London and several recommendations were made in a bid to prevent similar tragedies.
In a letter to then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, Coroner Frances Kirkham highlighted several problems.
She urged the government to “encourage” high-rise housing providers “to consider the retro-fitting of sprinkler systems” – but, crucially, didn’t say that they should be mandatory. The government claimed a letter was sent to housing providers to this effect, but has declined to make the letter public.
Kirkham also said there was “insufficient clarity” on ‘stay put’ advice in the event of a fire. The revelation in question six below suggests thinking around when people should stay where they are and when they should exit a building is still muddled four years on.
The coroner was unequivocal about Approved Document B, the building regulations for England last updated in 2006. She called it “a most difficult document to use” and recommended a comprehensive review – particularly of a section on the spread of fire on the outside of a building.
Four years on, Approved Document B remains unchanged.
3. How did Scotland respond so much quicker, and more effectively, to its own high-rise fire than England did to the Lakanal blaze?
The Lakanal House inquiry took four years to complete, with the findings published in 2013, much to the anguish of grieving relatives.
But even if the lengthy process was justified on the grounds of thoroughness – and that is debatable – the inaction on so many of its recommendations undermined the whole exercise anyway.
The swift conclusion to an inquiry into Scotland’s very own tower block tragedy – the 1999 fire at Garnock Court – and the more decisive action taken by Holyrood afterwards, serves as a damning counterpoint.
While the 2000 inquiry into the Garnock fire, in which one person died, “did not suggest [that] the majority of external cladding systems in the UK currently in use pose a serious threat to life safety or property in event of fire, they did go on to add, we do not believe it should take a serious fire in which many people are killed before all reasonable steps are taken towards minimising the fire risk,” fire-risk consultant Stephen Mackenzie told IFSEC Global.
“They then go on to make commentary about the inclusion of standards through the British Standards Institute, revision of the Approved Document B, and the title of that report under the reference was The Potential Risk of Fire Spread in Buildings via External Cladding Systems.
“Let’s look at legislation. We did it in Scotland. When we reviewed our fire safety legislation we also brought in new building regulations, we brought in new technical handbooks. And I believe, if memory services me correct, the most recent release was either in June 2016 or June 2017.”
By contrast, Approved Document B – the guidance framework for construction regulations in England – has not been updated since 2006.
“I am aware that the building regulations are under constant review,” continued Mackenzie, “there seems to be a dichotomy in the turnaround time: four years for the Lakanal report, one year for the Scottish Garnock report.
“We appear to be limping on with a very outdated and outmoded document.”
4. Why was there an apparent deficiency in firefighting equipment?
While initial analysis in the wake of the fire focused on cladding, firefighting equipment has come under the spotlight in recent days. A BBC Newsnight investigation uncovered multiple deficiencies, including that a high ladder did not arrive for more than 30 minutes.
Also known as an ‘aerial’, the ladder would have given firefighters a better chance of extinguishing the blaze had it arrived earlier, a fire expert told the BBC.
Are cuts to the fire service to blame for the shortcomings in firefighting equipment? Or is the problem more organisational and procedural?
Matt Wrack, general secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, said: “I have spoken to aerial appliance operators in London […] who attended that incident, who think that having that on the first attendance might have made a difference, because it allows you to operate a very powerful water tower from outside the building onto the building.”
Low water pressure was also said to hamper efforts to quell the flames, while firefighters reported radio problems.
Are cuts to the fire service to blame for the shortcomings in firefighting equipment? Or is the problem more organisational and procedural? Perhaps the UK’s comparatively – and deceptively – strong fire safety record had simply bred complacency in making sure enough equipment was available.
5. Should COBRA have been convened in the wake of the fire – as it is following terror attacks?
Stephen Mackenzie, a fire risk consultant who has spoken out on the Grenfell fire regularly in the media, believes the UK’s worst-ever tower block fire warranted the most serious government response. “I think we’ve seen a comparison between the Grenfell fire and Finsbury Park terrorist attack,” he notes. “Immediately following the Finsbury Park attack, Theresa May convened COBRA.
“That should have been the case on Thursday [the day after the fire], [or] the latter hours of Wednesday. Convene COBRA, get emergency personnel leads in, coordinate with local authority responders, and have a better response and management of media, and [to] the families’ and residents’ concerns.
“I feel it could have been sharper, more effective, and then the central government may not have received some of the criticism it has.”
He adds that “there are a number of professional bodies in the UK that can facilitate” the transition “from the emergency services response into the softer response by local authorities and the government. So it might be another line of enquiry for the coroner report, and also the public inquiry.”
6. Why was the advice to “stay put” given for the first two hours of the fire?
Advice given by the fire service to “stay put” inside Grenfell Tower as the fire spread was only changed after nearly two hours, the BBC has reported.
The policy was only changed at 2:47am, one hour and 53 minutes after the first emergency call.
Based on the ill-founded assumption that the fire can be contained – as it should be if suitable passive fire protection is in place – the advice was potentially fatal to anyone who followed it once the fire had spread rapidly from the room of origin.
With the death toll now estimated at around 80, the ‘stay put’ policy is now under serious scrutiny.
7. Why have calls to retrofit 4,000 tower blocks across the country gone unheeded?
Coroners, fire safety professionals and organisations and fire and rescue services have repeatedly urged the government to legislate for the mandatory installation of sprinklers in social housing, over many years.
In February 2013, following a 2010 blaze at a 15-storey block in Southampton, coroner Keith Wiseman recommended to Eric Pickles, then communities and local government secretary, and Sir Ken Knight, then the government’s chief fire and rescue adviser, that sprinklers be fitted to all buildings higher than 30 metres (98 ft).
The following month, Lakanal coroner Judge Frances Kirkham submitted similar recommendation to Pickles.
“In our commitment to be the first government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation […] Under that rule, when the Government introduce a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed.” Then housing minister Brandon Lewis rejects calls to force construction companies to fit sprinklers in 2014
In a previous report into the Lakanal House fire, Ken Knight had said that the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise blocks was not considered “practical or economically viable”.
However, the evidence Kirkham heard at the inquest prompted her to suggest that doing so “might now be possible at lower cost than had previously been thought to be the case, and with modest disruption to residents”.
This is apparently backed up by a successful retrofit at a Sheffield Tower block in 2012. A report on the installation demonstrated that it is possible to retrofit sprinklers into occupied, high-rise, social housing without evacuating residents and that these installations can be fast-tracked.
8. Are green targets, red tape reduction or austerity to blame?
Inevitably, the media’s focus has varied depending on the political leanings of the publication in question. While the Daily Mail predictably highlighted the prioritisation of green targets as a potential factor, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn even more predictably blamed austerity.
Back in 2015, when the FSF called for a review of Approved Document B, then Conservative MP for Canterbury and Whitstable Julian Brazier said: “My concern is that, at a time when building regulations are more prescriptive than ever on issues like energy saving, the basic requirement to make the building resilient to fire appears to have been lost sight of.”
The fact that Grenfell had just undergone £10m worth of refurbishment to “enhance the energy efficiency of the building” lends credence to these fears.
Artist and writer Akala, however, asserted that “they put panels, pretty panels on the outside so the rich people who lived opposite wouldn’t have to look at a horrendous block.” Whether you agree with this sentiment, that the fire alarms still didn’t work following a £10m refurbishment is appalling.
Another strand picked up was the Conservative Party’s (and to some extent New Labour’s) long-held policy of slashing regulation – or red tape – to boost business.
George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that: “In 2014, the then housing minister (who is now the immigration minister), Brandon Lewis, rejected calls to force construction companies to fit sprinklers in the homes they built on the following grounds:
“’In our commitment to be the first Government to reduce regulation, we have introduced the one in, two out rule for regulation … Under that rule, when the Government introduce a regulation, we will identify two existing ones to be removed’ […]
“In other words, though he accepted that sprinklers ‘are an effective way of controlling fires and of protecting lives and property’, to oblige builders to introduce them would conflict with the government’s deregulatory agenda. Instead, it would be left to the owners of buildings to decide how best to address the fire risk: ‘Those with responsibility for ensuring fire safety in their businesses, in their homes or as landlords, should and must make informed decisions on how best to manage the risks in their own properties,’ Lewis said.
“This calls to mind the Financial Times journalist Willem Buiter’s famous remark that “self-regulation stands in relation to regulation the way self-importance stands in relation to importance”. Case after case, across all sectors, demonstrates that self-regulation is no substitute for consistent rules laid down, monitored and enforced by government.
“Crucial public protections have long been derided in the billionaire press as “elf ’n’ safety gone mad”. It’s not hard to see how ruthless businesses can cut costs by cutting corners, and how this gives them an advantage over their more scrupulous competitors.”
9. Is the privatisation of fire-safety research a problem?
Stephen Mackenzie, a fire risk consultant who has spoken out on the Grenfell fire regularly in the media, appears to think so. “We’ve increasingly seen over the past decades, our fire research provision within the UK, which is internationally renowned, becoming increasingly privatised,” he told IFSEC Global during a recent interview. “Whether it’s a research establishment which is now a charitable trust, whether it’s a fire service college which is now under the major government support contracts, or the emergency planning college which is under another support service provider…”
10. Why must it take mass casualties to trigger serious change?
It is a fact of human nature that we do not intuit and respond emotionally to risk in an entirely rational way. So it is that 30% of us are, to some extent, nervous about flying, yet few of us worry about hurtling down the motorway at 80mph – despite the fact that you are vastly more likely to die in the latter scenario.
There was no shortage of plane crashes before 9/11, yet none of those crashes had been seared into people’s nightmares. The numbers of people avoiding flying duly soared in the wake of the disaster. This was despite the fact that security was tightened following 9/11, reducing the risk of further attacks.
In his 2008 book Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear, Dan Garder reflected that the thousands of people who eschewed flights in favour of driving in the wake of 9/11 actually increased their risk of dying. “By one estimate, it killed 1,500 people,” he wrote. “On their death certificates, it says they were killed by car crashes. But, really, the ultimate cause of death was misperceived risk.”
Fire disasters of the magnitude of Grenfell are – mercifully – rare. It had been eight years since Lakanal and few remembered it. People were still dying in fires but it rarely made the front pages. Instead, the media was devoting much of its time to the spate of terror attacks and before that, the countless terror attacks that were foiled.
Politicians, believe it or not, suffer from the same askew intuition over risk as ordinary people. Faced with an inbox full of warnings about myriad threats, the Prime Minister inevitably prioritised those that seemed most immediate, most viscerally terrifying and which the media and general public seemed most concerned about.
Fuelled by the decades-long trend of falling fire deaths, fire safety had fallen down the list of priorities. That is certainly no longer the case.
Undoubtedly, so horrific was the Grenfell fire that something will undoubtedly now be done. Whether enough is done, or whether the right things are done, is another matter.
But why must it take a tragedy of such proportions before the problems – which were flagged time and again by fire organisations – are taken seriously? The risk was always there.
While such fires are rare events, any sober analysis would have revealed that Lakanal could readily happen again and that casualties could be far, far worse. And yet it is only when the industry’s worst fears are realised that the momentum for change can truly build.