In this blog, the second in our series on the Grenfell fire, we continue to review the fire safety facts and evidence. The media focused intense scrutiny on building and fire safety regulations and the extent to which they were heeded.
Tower blocks around the UK fail fire safety tests
In the days and weeks following the fire, the cladding came under intense scrutiny. There was obvious concern for residents of other tower blocks with similar cladding. Just ten days after the fire, Camden council ordered the evacuation of hundreds of people from a housing estate. The communities secretary, Sajid Javid told Sky News that the evacuation had been prompted by the discovery of ‘multiple fire safety failures’.
But it didn’t end there. The government issued several statements as each round of tests were concluded. To date, they’ve reported a 100% failure rate on all tests. It’s not been confirmed, but the belief is that all blocks tested are local authority-owned. As a result, many local councils took the step of removing cladding from blocks affected.
Questions continued to be raised about fire safety regulations and whether the cladding, used on so many buildings, complied with guidance. And if not, why not? Residents say they approved the use of zinc cladding but the council later swapped this for the cheaper aluminium cladding.
And it wasn’t just tower blocks at risk. The NHS identified a number of hospital trust buildings in England with potentially hazardous cladding.
Other types of cladding also ordered for testing
After the first round of tests, a government-appointed panel of fire safety experts recommended more thorough testing on other forms of cladding. Grenfell Tower was fitted with aluminium composite material (ACM) cladding. Other types of cladding use different materials, some combustible, some not. The panel warned that they did not expect the cladding to meet safety standards.
Scotland announces plans for own fire safety investigation
Scotland announced plans to carry out its own investigation into the safety of high-rise blocks. Unsurpisingly, the announcement came shortly after the Grenfell fire – less than two weeks.
Building and fire safety regulations in Scotland are different to those in England. MSPs had already scheduled a review of the regulations and, post-Grenfell, agreed to add high-rise buildings to the scope. Thousands of families live in high-rise accommodation across Scotland .
Government announce independent review of building regulations
At the end of July, the Government finally announced that it intended to review England’s building regulations. Experts had identified over 80 high-rise buildings with cladding and insulation which had failed fire safety tests. Further tests on a 9m high demonstration wall (using the same materials) did not meet fire safety standards. In the test, flames spread to the top of the wall in eight minutes and at peak temperatures of 800C.
Catalogue of errors reported by trade magazine
One trade journal in particular caught the headlines with the eerily predictive nature of its work. Inside Housing had focused several stories on fire risks in tower blocks and the lack of regulations. The 2009 Lakanal House fire in Camberwell had alerted them to potential failings. For example:
- In 2015, the magazine wrote about the lack of sprinkler systems in council-owned tower blocks. A FOI request confirmed that, at the time, just 18 out of a total of 2,925 had sprinklers.
- Last year, after a fire in Shepherd’s Bush, it reported that the London fire brigade had issued a warning to landlords. The brigade were concerned about the fire hazard posed by cladding on tower blocks.
- Following the fire, the magazine looked more closely at Grenfell Tower and uncovered failings. It had not had a fire safety check for 18 months. What’s more, during the refurbishment, all fire protection between the floors was temporarily removed.
Editor, Emma Maier said, “Lessons were not learned after Lakanal House. I hope that this time it will be different.”
London councils had been warned about possible fire regulation breaches
Several media outlets reported on the surprising news that London Fire Brigade warned London councils about the flammability of the cladding. Prompted by another high-rise fire at a Hammersmith council block, London Fire Brigade wrote to the councils drawing their attention to the speed at which the fire spread. Crucially, they also recommended that local authorities take immediate action.
What’s more, in 2015, London Fire Brigade was so concerned by the lack of adequate regulatory oversight in high-rise refurbishments, they issued the councils with an audit tool. The tool was designed to help the councils conduct a risk assessment. It’s not clear if Kensington and Chelsea council took this advice on board.
The concerns of LFB date back years since the 2009 Lakanal House fire. The Camberwell blaze had many similarities to the Grenfell Tower fire.
The scope of the public inquiry
Three months to the date after the fire on 14 September, Sir Martin Moore-Bick officially opened the public inquiry. He also announced the terms of reference for the inquiry. It will examine the following areas, among others:
- What caused the fire and how it spread to the whole building
- The design and construction of Grenfell Tower
- The refurbishment process and decison making process
- ‘Scope and adequacy’ of building regulations, fire regulations and other legislation
- Specific guidance and industry practice relating to the design, construction, equipping and management of high-rise residential buildings
- Were the regulations and guidance complied with?
- What fire prevention measures and fire safety measures were in place?
- How was information from residents’ about their fire safety concerns acted upon?
Criminal charges may follow as more information is uncovered
Alongside the independent public inquiry, criminal investigations are ongoing. The police say they haven’t ruled out the possibility of individual manslaughter charges.
Fire safety breaches uncovered in Grenfell Tower
Everyone anticipates an exhaustive public inquiry. As noted above, Sir Martin Moore-Bick and his advisors will want to look closely at the refurbishment process. The media has reported on several breaches, including the revelation that there were dozens of exposed gas pipes in the tower. The pipes were installed during the winter last year; at the time, a council safety advisor instructed that fire retardant boxing be fitted around the pipes. At the time of the blaze, gas contractors had protected only 1/3 of the pipes despite calls from residents about safety concerns.
We have now passed the 100-day mark since the Grenfell Tower fire. The Mayor of London has used it to mark his continued lobbying of government for the resources needed to ‘make London safe’. Most questions are still unanswered and we must wait for the inquiry to progress and provide answers. At the time of posting this blog, there has been no more announcements made from the inquiry. We are not expecting to see the first-stage report until next Easter which has frustrated many, especially survivors.
That’s not to say there won’t be updates and we are sure the media will continue to investigate and report on aspects of fire safety and how this was compromised at Grenfell Tower.
Information provided by The National Fire Chiefs Council
The National Fire Chiefs Council has compiled an an open access online repository of documents, links and resources related to the Grenfell Tower. Materials include:
- NFCC resources – position statements, submissions, and guidance
- Links to the Grenfell Tower public inquiry website, open statements and key documents
- Establishment of the Expert Panel and the panel’s recommendations
- Department of Communities and Local Government advice and guidance
- Government announcements and statements
- Other useful links
For access visit: https://www.nationalfirechiefs.org.uk/Grenfell-Tower
Keep an eye out for our next blog in this series.
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.