Time for a fire safety revamp, after inadequacies highlighted

The long-awaited Grenfell Tower fire public inquiry report is to be released on 30 October. Conclusions about the fire, which took 72 lives on 14 June 2017, will be published and given to Parliament. Government Business looks into the report

With the General Election having now passed, but taken up most, if not all, media attention in the last few weeks, the fire safety recommendations for the next government, released by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS), went largely unnoticed. Highlighting fie safety within the larger topic of housing supply as one of the key issues for the next government, RICS says it is imperative that they introduce 'clear, coherent policy and legislation' in order to reduce the risk to the public and embed universally agreed fire safety standards and practice.

All of the Hackitt Review recommendations were deemed necessary of implementation, with RICS also suggesting that the newly-formed majority Conservative government needs to support the IFSS Coalition, endorse RICS' guide to fire safety and amend building regulations to make sprinklers mandatory.

At the start of December, the National Fire Chief's Council stressed that the threshold for sprinklers should be lower, responding in part to the government’s consultation paper, Sprinklers and other fire safety measures in high-rise blocks of flats. Roy Wilsher, chair of the NFCC, pointed to the fact that there is currently ‘a gap for protection of buildings between 11m and 18m’, saying that the threshold should be lowered to the lesser height, especially given the threshold for sprinklers is now being considered separately from many closely related safety measures.

The NFCC is calling for legislation to be strengthened to ensure that fire-safety standards are brought up and to prevent the building sector from applying a ‘like for like’ replacement, leading to declining fire safety in buildings.

The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) discussed the same issue, saying sprinklers in new high-rise flats cannot replace other essential fire safety measures. Despite widely, and vocally, supporting the use of sprinklers in high-rise flats as a highly effective means of life protection, the institute maintains that they 'should not be used as a means to compensate for other essential life safety measures or justify reducing minimum standards.' As well as sprinklers, RIBA argues that centrally addressable fire alarm systems should be required in new and converted multiple occupancy residential buildings.

London Fire Brigade
Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services has published a scathing report into the London Fire Brigade, saying that the organisation is ‘one of the worst in the country. Two and a half years after the Grenfell Tower disaster, in which 72 residents lost their lives, the report claims that incident commanders remain inadequately trained, the service is wasting resources and it is failing to learn from its mistakes.

A spokesperson for the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, said that the findings were ‘very concerning’, especially the claim that the UK’s biggest fire brigade was ‘inadequate at getting the right people with the right skills’, sometimes sending commanders to fight blazes who had not been trained for five years, and employing engine drivers had not been trained for 20 years.

Danny Cotton, the London Fire Commissioner in charge of the highly criticised response to the Grenfell Tower fire recently resigned after renewed calls from bereaved families and survivors of the disaster for her to quit. Her planned retirement in June 2020 has been brought forward to New Year’s Eve after the public inquiry into what happened on the night of the fire found serious failings in the London fire brigade’s (LFB) preparation and response.

Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the Grenfell inquiry’s chair, remarked that the way Cotton had rhetorically asked in her evidence ‘how do you get them all out?’ demonstrated that the LFB had never itself sought to answer that question. Also questioned and criticised in the preparedness element of the investigation was experienced commanders having no training in the dangers of combustible cladding and a complete lack of a contingency plan for Grenfell’s evacuation.

The event itself
With more than 250 London Fire Brigade firefighters and 70 fire engines involved from stations all across London in efforts to control the fire and rescue residents, the inquiry said that the first incident commanders at the scene were not properly prepared and failed to seize control of the situation or change strategy.

Moore-Bick said that ‘none of them seem to have been able to conceive a need for mass evacuation’, arguing that the shortcomings were ‘systemic’ and that ‘both personnel and systems were overwhelmed by the scale of the disaster’. He did, however, also say that the firefighters who attended the tower displayed ‘extraordinary courage and selfless devotion to duty’, but unfortunately were ‘faced with a situation for which they had not been properly prepared’.

Regarding the evacuation, the inquiry said that, ‘once it was clear that the fire was out of control and that compartmentation had failed’, a decision was needed to organise the evacuation of the tower, which at that point, remained possible. That decision ‘could and shoul’d have been made between 01.30 and 01.50 and is considered likely ‘to have resulted in fewer fatalities’. Instead, the best part of an hour was lost before the ‘stay put’ advice was revoked. The report also condemned ‘serious deficiencies’ in command and control, including many of the physical or electronic communication systems not working properly.

LFB’s use of the control room also came under inspection, with the service’s policy on handling potentially life-saving fire survival guidance (FSG) calls falling short of what is deemed acceptable. The brigade’s policy on handling FSG calls requires control room operators (CROs) to stay on the line with callers until they are rescued or can otherwise leave the building, but the number of FSG calls received during the fire far exceeded the number of CROs available, putting them in an invidious position. CROs were also found not to have always obtained necessary information from callers, such as flat numbers, the number of people present, or whether people were disabled; nor did they always assess conditions at the callers’ locations and hence the possibility of their escape. Much of this was because CROs had not been trained to handle multiple, simultaneous calls, nor did they know the circumstances in which a caller should be advised to leave the building or stay put.

Furthermore, channels of communication between the control room and the incident ground were reported as ‘improvised, uncertain and prone to error’, meaning that those on the incident ground did not have access to valuable information from the control room.

Regarding the spread of the fire, operators were described in the inquiry report as too often treating what callers were telling them with ‘scepticism, in some cases contradicting the caller’. It concludes that they appear to have been unable to grasp the fact that it had spread rapidly up the building.

Recommendations from the report
Sir Martin Moore-Bick has written that fire brigade inspections of high-rise buildings need to be improved and crews trained better to carry out more thorough risk evaluations. Regular inspections of lifts intended to be used by firefighters are also needed. Discussing communications, the report says that dialogue between fire brigade control rooms, where emergency calls are received, and incident commanders must improve and there must be a dedicated communication link.

The new government, with a Conservative majority, should quickly develop national guidelines for carrying out partial or total evacuations of high-rise residential buildings, and fire doors in all multi-occupancy, residential properties should be urgently inspected.

A law requiring owners and managers of high-rise residential buildings to provide their local fire and rescue service with information about external wall materials and building plans was also seen as an important move, while improvements were deemed necessary to the data links provided by helicopters of the National Police Air Service. Pictures transmitted on the night of Grenfell could not be viewed by the LFB because the encryption was incompatible with its receiving equipment.

Of 15 fire services to be inspected by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services, London, Essex and Gloucestershire were the three to be rated as requiring improvement.