Wednesday 14 June 2017 marks the date of one of the deadliest fires in UK history. At around 1am, Grenfell Tower in west London was rapidly engulfed in flames. The fire tore through the 24-storey high tower block in less than an hour. What went so wrong with fire safety at Grenfell Tower?
In the few months since the blaze, we know some, but not all, of the facts. With the death toll currently standing at 60, it’s a date that will be remembered for years to come. The final official figure has not been released and may never be due to the nature of the fire. The Grenfell Tower fire safety public inquiry was launched on 14 September. It set out a list of the issues that would be investigated. It will be chaired by former appeal court judge, Sir Martin Moore-Bick.
Our series of blogs on the Grenfell tragedy review the facts and evidence available relating to fire safety. Why was the blaze so serious? Was adequate fire protection in place (it was reported on the same day that this was in doubt), given this was a building which had recently undergone extensive renovation? And what lessons can be learned for the future?
What were the main areas of concern?
Within hours of the fire breaking out, news reports began speculating on several areas:
- the cause of the fire (later confirmed to be a faulty fridge)
- claims from residents about long-term fire safety concerns
- the speed at which the fire engulfed the building
The residents’ group, known as the Grenfell Action Group (GAG), swiftly confirmed what the media were reporting. Their blog contained a multitude of posts. It criticised both Kensington and Chelsea Council and Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). The blog repeatedly raised concerns over many years that fire safety was not being taken seriously. It also predicted a catastrophe was imminent. A fire in 2009 at Lakanal House in Camberwell in which six people died had uncovered similar issues.
A TMO Health and Safety Officer conducted a fire risk assessment in 2012, which GAG published the following year, describing a variety of safety concerns, including
- Fire-fighting equipment had not been serviced for up to four years
- On-site fire extinguishers had expired
- Some had the word ‘condemned’ marked on them due to their age
In January 2016, GAG raised concerns that people might be trapped in the tower block by fire because there was only one entrance and exit; also, rubbish such as old mattresses was accumulating in the corridors. Later that year, GAG published an online article criticising KCTMO for their attitude and accusing the council of ignoring health and safety laws.
Highly flammable construction materials were used
The unusual speed at which the fire travelled from the foot of the building to the top floor shocked many onlookers. Attention soon turned to the cladding on the exterior of the tower block which experts suggested may have acted as an accelerant.
Subsequent testing of the cladding material suggests that it is combustible and this will no doubt form a major part of the inquiry. Fire safety experts are already calling for a ban on the use of combustible materials in the construction of high-rise buildings.
Fire integrity of the building structure
The speed of the blaze in turn raised questions about fire integrity. Why was the fire not contained in the flat where it started? Was there adequate compartmentation in the building? If not, did this failing compound the cladding problem?
Why were residents told to ‘stay put’?
A 2014 newsletter from KCTMO advised residents that there was an official ‘stay put’ policy in place in the event of fire. It also claimed that the doors to the flats were 30-minute fire rated. A subsequent newsletter in 2016 repeated this information, adding it was on the advice of the London Fire Brigade.
The wisdom of this advice has been roundly debated, with many commentators conceding that in a building with adequate passive fire protection, a ‘stay put’ policy is usually safest. It allows fire fighters to control a fire without residents coming to harm. But at Grenfell, with the apparent lack of passive fire protection and the highly flammable cladding, this policy may have inadvertently caused harm to the residents it was designed to protect.
No sprinkler system in the building
Again, there was criticism of the lack of sprinklers though this was countered with extensive debate among commentators and experts on the efficacy of sprinklers. It’s true that sprinkler systems, a form of active fire protection, are not common in the UK.
Regulations stipulate that all new tall buildings must have sprinkler systems but this does not apply retrospectively to older buildings. However, post-Grenfell, the London fire chief has called for sprinklers to be retrofitted in all social housing blocks.
Kensington and Chelsea Council’s leader was put on the spot about the absence of a sprinkler system which had been mooted when the block was refurbished. He said, “I didn’t consider retrofitting sprinklers because we were told that what you try to do when you are refurbishing is to contain a fire within a particular flat so that the fire service can evacuate that flat, deal with the fire.
“There was not a collective view that all the flats should be fitted with sprinklers because that would have delayed and made the refurbishment of the block more disruptive.”
With regards to a wider fire protection system, it’s also unclear exactly what provision had been made in the tower. Some residents reported that they never heard a fire alarm go off and were only alerted to the fire by the screams of their neighbours, while others claimed to have heard a fire alarm.
Are our building/fire safety regulations rigorous enough?
Kensington and Chelsea Council spent a reported £8.7 million on the refurbishment of Grenfell Tower which was completed last year. During this renovation, the aluminium composite cladding was fixed to the concrete structure, partly for insulation and partly to improve building aesthetics.
This choice of cladding was heavily scrutinised after the fire. Did it comply with building and fire safety regulations? It’s still not completely clear. Extensive media coverage has shown that the council were aware of some safety concerns. They were raised during the refurbishment but certified the work as conforming to ‘the relevant provisions’.
It’s still unclear if problems lie with the rules themselves or their enforcement but concerns over fire safety issues are not uncommon. There was no central fire alarm system at Lakanal House although current building regulations do not require it. And we do know that the cladding (and insulation plates) failed fire safety tests conducted after the blaze.
Reinhard Ries, a German fire chief, was critical of the UK’s ‘lax fire regulations’ as compared to Germany’s more stringent rules on fire safety in tall buildings. His was not a lone voice in the media debates about Grenfell Tower fire safety.
FIREX panel calls for building regulations review
A week after the fire, a panel of experts at FIREX International called for the reassessment of building regulations. Dennis Davis of the Fire Sector Federation said, “We must get over this. 2006 was the last review. Ten years is too long a gap, far too long a gap if you consider how much construction and building has changed.”
Steve Seaber of the British Automatic Fire Sprinkler Association suggested that annual reviews (as happens in Australia) should be considered and the panel also observed that there was also issues around the competency and skills of those installing fire protection systems, as not all are third-party accredited or of a high standard.
And then came a startling revelation. Former housing minister, Gavin Barwell, had committed in 2016 to review part B of the building regulations on fire safety. This had been on the cards since the Lakanal House fire in 2009. For unknown reasons, they had put the review on hold. Many have crtiticised the Conservative government for relaxing regulation too much.
As we’re sure you’re aware, the Grenfell Tower fire safety story doesn’t end here. Our next blog in this series reveals more reported failings in fire safety legislation across the UK.
And remember, for any fire safety advice or concerns you have, we’re always here. Please get in touch with head office who will find the right expert to help you.
David has worked in the fire protection industry for over 30 years. He formed Fire Safety Services in 1999, initially working from home as a sole trader, and is proud to have grown a national company providing quality and ethical fire safety. Today, the business turns over £7 million plus and has nearly 100 employees.