The slow learning curve of high rise Firefighting in the United Kingdom; A personal reflection.

Definition and History.

When you think about high rise buildings, the first city that comes to mind is probably New York… maybe Chicago or Los Angeles or you may consider Hong Kong, Dubai and Shanghai, but rarely London.

But London does have a lot of high-rise buildings, the most surprising fact about high rise buildings in London is that it is only in the past couple of decades that high rise buildings have significantly increased in height over the 150m/500ft modern definition. The main reason for that being the clay bedrock on which London is built and long-standing restrictions on building height that go back as far as the London Building act of 1894.

The first true skyscraper in the City of London was the 183m/600ft NatWest Tower, completed in 1980, followed by the construction of the tallest building in Europe in 1991, the 235m/771ft 1 Canada Square at Canary Wharf in London’s old Docklands area.

In the years that followed there has been a second high rise revolution in London with 40 buildings that are over the 150m/492ft benchmark and 118 over 100m/328ft, with the 310m/1016ft ‘Shard’ in Southwark being the tallest in London, the UK and Western Europe.

But in terms of high-rise firefighting, any building taller than the height of the fire services tallest ladder could be considered high rise and traditionally in terms of high-rise firefighting anything over 18m or 60ft was required to be fitted with facilities for firefighters such as a dry rising main for delivering water to the fire floor, a protected staircase and an firefighting lift. 

Across the UK, where the regulations apply the number of residential buildings defined as high rise is around 12,500. But the definitive figures are not clear, another study which covers the administrative area covered by the London Boroughs in an eye watering 44,000 buildings that are 18m or taller. This of course includes all types of building, from offices to hospitals to hotels, many of the large ‘medium rise’ mansion blocks that dominate the tight streets of Central London, schools, colleges, warehouses, churches and so on.

It is unclear and difficult to find a definitive list, as many interested parties have different definitions. But as Firefighters we need to consider any building where if a fire occurred, we would be required to adopt some form of high-rise firefighting where instead of running hose lines from the street, we would need to establish a bridgehead at a level above ground, but below the fire to begin firefighting and rescue operations. That number in both London and further afield across the UK will, we can be sure runs into many tens of thousands, so those are where we historically had to employ a different set of tactics and thus were defined by the fire service at least as high-rise buildings, whether they be medium rise, high rise or skyscrapers that are seen from miles around. 

Since 2020 the landscape has changed even more, following the fire at ‘The Cube’ student accommodation block in Bolton, Greater Manchester, the regulations now apply to buildings with a top floor above 11m. the threshold for sprinklers to be fitted in residential accommodation was also reduced from 30m to 11m. This potentially brings the number of buildings in scope into the hundreds of thousands. 

Historically, in London especially due to the destruction of so much of the inner London area in the Blitz of World War two, but also in almost all of our towns and cities, the early 1960’s saw the development of the traditional high-rise blocks of flats, to replace many of the bomb ruins or dilapidated slums. British Standard Code of Practice 3 (1962 as amended 1971) became the standard to which these building were designed and built on the premise that anyone who was in a fire above the height of a 50ft wheeled escape ladder, with the addition of a 10ft first floor ladder (60ft or 18m) was beyond external rescue by the first arriving Firefighters. 

Thus, these flats were to be designed with each dwelling being a fire resisting ‘box’ that would allow other people in the building to remain where they were, and anyone affected by the fire to escape into fire resisting corridors and make their way out of the building down a protected staircase. The building also being fitted with means of firefighting (dry risers and “Fireman’s lifts”) to assist those sent to deal with the outbreak.

High rise firefighting.

As a child growing up in the East End of London in the 1970’s, high rise housing estates were all around me. In fact, my grandparents having been moved out of their old terraced house in 1969, lived on the 11th floor of a 16 storey ‘modern’ tower block. Occasionally there would be a fire in one of these blocks in the area, and although I don’t have any specific memories before my own career began, I remember seeing the blackened scars of a fire in quiet a few blocks over those years.

My own career with London Fire Brigade began in 1987, and it was just twelve short weeks after being posted to my first station that I was on a standby duty at Homerton Fire Station in Hackney, to cover a personnel shortage that I attended my first serious high-rise fire. 

Although my training had been brutal with harsh practical training drills and a head crammed with facts, figures and information on equipment, procedures, building construction, hydraulics, fire prevention regulations and the like. I didn’t particularly recall being taught very much about fighting fires in high rise buildings. In fact, upon my arrival at the fire, in a block of flats in Daubeney Road, in Homerton, overlooking the infamous football pitches at Hackney marshes. It became apparent pretty quickly that there was no recognised high-rise procedure, just a collection of locally agreed procedures based on the experience of fighting fires in these blocks, watch by watch, station by station. 

I was instructed “Grab some breaking in gear and follow me” by the Sub Officer in charge of my appliance and along with everyone apart from the two drivers of the two pumps from Homerton, we bundled into the lifts and headed skywards. I do recall we took the lifts to the floor below the fire but was soon on the fire floor with smoke seeping from behind the door to the flat. Recognising we had a job, the two BA men started their sets and I was thrust a roll of Dutch rolled 45mm hose and told to “set in”. The door was kicked in and one of the officers crabbed his way into the flat, the landing immediately filled with smoke forcing us all to the floor for clean air. I bowled the hose out and more by accident than design found myself next to the glass-doored dry rising main outlet. 

Coughing in the smoke, I used my axe to break the Georgian wired glass cover to the door, rather unsuccessfully because of the wire in the glass and then as I reached through the hole to open the door, I cursed as I caught my wrist on the sharp broken glass. Those were the final days of loose cuffed woollen fire tunics and red rubber debris gloves, so fire protection, let alone hard protection from sharp objects was still a year or so away. I plugged the hose in and on the call of water on, took a breath, stood up to wind open the valve on the dry riser outlet. 

Literally licking my wounded wrist, I don’t remember much more than just putting up with the snot and tears from the smoke as everyone else seemed to be coping with it, but despite all of this read in horror through the lens of modern firefighting in 2023, the fire was out very quickly and I was soon standing again in the steamy atmosphere of the burnt out flat. That was my first experience of high-rise firefighting, there was no procedure, but everyone had a role, albeit mine was given to me at the time in short gruff commands. The right equipment was taken up, two lengths of 45mm hose and a hand control branch, a BA control board, breaking in gear and two of the firefighters, those being deployed for search, rescue and firefighting being equipped with BA. The fundamentals of which are still recognised in high rise firefighting in the UK today.

I also added this first of many layers of fighting a fire in a tall building to what was then a very lean library of experience. There was no debrief as such, I was scolded for cutting my wrist but also loosely commended for having the hose laid out, plugged in and ready for when water was called for. I made some mental notes as to what I’d do again and what I’d not do (cut my wrist) but didn’t particularly concern myself with the myriad of issues I’d consider and eventually be responsible for when in command of large high-rise fires decades into the future. 

I quicky grew to realise that firefighting in high-rise buildings was a regular part of what we did in those days. In fact, Homerton was just North of my own Station, Bethnal Green and close to the borders of the two stations were two blocks on the notorious Kingshold Estate, that rather like the Bronx in New York City in the 70’s people were regularly burning themselves out of to escape the crime and miserable living conditions. So scarred by fire were these two buildings, they were named ‘Beirut Towers’ by local Firefighters as their outside appearance began to resemble the bomb-damaged buildings seen on the TV news at the time from the Lebanese Civil War.

One of the two ‘Beirut Towers’ blocks on the Kingshold Estate in Hackney in the late 1980’s.

New Challenges

By 1989 I had transferred to Poplar Fire Station, close to where I lived back then. This area in particular had suffered badly in the Blitz so the proliferation of high-rise housing estates in the area was higher than most other parts of London and the UK. In addition, the Canadian Development company Olympia and York, won the contract to start the biggest development in the World at that time, the 83 acres of Canary Wharf in the West India Docks, constructing what was at that time locally called ‘Mini Manhattan’ because of the number of tall office blocks that were proposed. 

Little did we know that by 2023, that area would contain over 50 commercial and residential buildings 27 of which are over 100m in height, the site is now laid out over 128 acres. It has five of the ten tallest buildings in London and is home to the tallest residential block in Western Europe at an eye watering 77 storeys. 

Back then, the response in terms of the regulatory regime was immense, LFB had their own team of fire safety officers and engineers working with the developers, and the initial response to calls to fires or fire alarms on the estate was increased to four pumps, an aerial and a command unit. But from a tactical point of view, no one was interested, and no one listened. Us, the Firefighters at Poplar and surrounding stations were to deal with a fire in an open plan office, consuming highly combustible workstations on the 48th floor of No1 Canada Square, as we would a mattress burning in a bedroom on the 8th floor of nearby Fitzgerald House, one of dozens of late 1960’s council high rise blocks on our patch. 

We developed our own ways of responding to Canary wharf and inevitably this bled over into our response to other blocks. This was often on a watch by watch (shift) basis across local Stations, with the Red Watch doing something different to the White Watch and so on. I recall over the years bags carrying nozzles and ancillary equipment. A large ‘spare’ equipment tray from one of the fire engines full of gear, and yes, even back then, we were experimenting with different hose packs. On the Red Watch at Poplar, at the change of shift we would unroll two lengths of 45mm lay flat hose and re pack it as flaked length, for ease of deployment. 

We further recognised the old AWG nozzle was next to useless and campaigned to get a modern combination nozzle added to replace it. The nozzle of choice was the high flow smooth bore ‘noble branch’ which was good for around 900-1000lpm of water delivery. Yet in 1998, when LFB were late to the party, after most other UK fire services had long since been using combination nozzles, they introduced a superb Akron combination nozzle, but the people behind desks instead of behind those hoses, decided to not only ditch the elderly AWG, but also the Noble, cutting our ability to deliver high volumes of water and low pressures by half overnight…. The secret to effective high-rise firefighting as the dry and wet risers were designed exactly to work with high flow, low pressure nozzles. 

As my career progressed, I was never far from Poplar, in other parts of the East End of London with a similar profile of tall blocks of flats, all of which were gradually slipping down the scale in terms of their state of repair and unfortunately tenancy. The generation of post war tenants, like my Grandparents were dying out in the 80s and 90’s. The ‘tower block’ was no longer desirable, so the new occupiers tended to be transient or the flats empty and used by squatters, drink or drug dependent people, or youngster, each of which massively increased the likelihood of a fire starting. 

We continued to manage with locally agreed ‘on arrival tactics’ and despite constant knocking on closed doors by those of us in various parts of London who had a particular vocational interest and desire to improve our lot, the situation remained unchanged. I can recall attending many fires, where I was part of the initial BA attack team or back up team, the driver/pump operator, where the slightest miscalculation in the positioning of the first pumping appliance might mean the difference between two drivers running out 4 or 8 lengths of hose to get a hydrant supply and then feed that into the dry rising main. As a Junior Officer I was charged with the initial command decision making from the base of the building or taking a role that we now call the fire sector commander at the area below the fire we now call the bridgehead. 

Canary Wharf 2022.

By the early 2000’s I was back at Poplar and was acting up as Station Commander from my base post of rider Station Officer on the White Watch at the station. By then, we were just post 9/11 and my main external liaison role was that of being the link between LFB and Canary Wharf Management.

That was a productive period for me and to be fair to Canary Wharf Management, they offered to buy the right level of equipment for us to use on their buildings, but of course standardisation, health and safety, training and procurement implications made that a non-starter. What I was able to do, was to organise a training exercise, simulating a major fire in a large open plan office space (3600sqm) of a recently completed 32 storey office block. 

It quickly became apparent (as expected) that the long standing and limited tactical policy, designed for firefighting in smaller residential units was totally inappropriate. In fact, if you consider fighting a fire in a residential flat as a house fire in the sky, with a large commercial office fire, you effectively have a warehouse fire in the sky, with limited means of attack.

Smaller 45mm lines of hose were completely inappropriate in terms of the delivery of water to overcome the (imagined) rate of heat release, so several 70mm hose lines were deployed from separate fire towers (protected firefighting staircases) within the building. Using the rough flowrate formula of lpm= area x 6 (for higher fire loading) an assumed fire covering a quarter of the office space (900sqm), we would have needed to be flowing 5400lpm, the best we could manage would have been around 1800lpm using one hose line from each fire tower, with the Akron combination nozzle only being good for 450lpm.  Some ‘sectors’ used Dutch rolled 70mm hose with crews of two Firefighters, they effectively exhausted their BA sets just trying to deploy the hose without tangles and struggling with the weight just to get up to and through the door when charged. In one tower we used crews of four, using flaked hose (we had yet to discover the Cleveland roll at that point), with another crew of four ‘feeding’ the hose up from the outlet in the lobby of the floor below, this being deemed most effective. 

We were on the 15th floor, so in that building roughly 58m/225ft above vehicle access level, well above the height of the 110ft that LFB’s tallest aerial was at that point. So, it was agreed the only way to attack the fire effectively and safely was by using high flow nozzles (like the noble branch we no longer used) or with high flow portable attack monitors, the like of which LFB did not have at that time. Lots of interested parties across LFB attended and noted the difficulties and full of enthusiasm, I completed a detailed post incident debrief followed by a report… and nothing happened.

A number of major global events in the first years of the new millennium were a prompt for the fire service to review fires in tall buildings. The most obvious being the September the 11th attacks in the USA. In the UK, this prompted the setting up of BDAG (Building Disaster Assessment Group) by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, who at the that time were responsible for the Fire and Rescue service in the UK.

The group reported on the physiological effects of firefighting in tall building on firefighters, the relationship between building design and firefighting, water supplies for firefighting in tall buildings and communications systems in large complex buildings among other project streams. 

Furthermore, there were a number of significant fires during this time that called current practice into question. 

  • In 2001, two serious high-rise fires occurred within weeks of each other in Kent. Both were fatal fires involving internal spread beyond the flat of origin, requiring multiple internal and external rescues and injuries to Firefighters responding to the incident. 
  • In July 2003, a serious fire occurred in Telstar House, a 1960’s office block in Paddington, West London. The block was not required to have sprinklers and due to the warm weather, windows were left open. The fire was able to spread from the 7th floor to the 11th floor before it was brough under control. The fire loading in this block was greater than at the First Interstate Bank Fire in Los Angeles in 1988. Two Firefighters were injured one seriously whilst attempting to fight the fire using accepted high rise firefighting tactics in these large open planned offices that were completed consumed by fire. The only think that brought the fire under control was that it was on relatively low floors where external aerial monitors and hand held hose lines from neighbouring buildings were able to provide sufficient volume of water to overcome the fire. Had this building been taller and the fire occurred on upper floors it would have potentially burnt until it reached the top of the building. 
  • Similar to Telstar House, a fire occurred in Torre Windsor (Windsor Tower) a 32 storey office building in Madrid, this fire started on the 21st floor and with the same tactical limitations that occurred at Telstar House, but beyond the reach of external aerial water streams the fire burned for 24 hours, consuming the entire upper part of the building and led to a number of floors to collapse. Seven Firefighters were injured at this fire. 
  • Also in 2005, a wind driven fire on the 15th floor of a residential block of flats in Stevenage in Hertfordshire killed a resident of the flat and also killed Firefighters Michael Miller and Jeff Wornham. They were completely overwhelmed as the windows failed catching them in a powerful ‘blowtorch’ of fire, just as they entered the flat to rescue the trapped resident. 

It is fair to say that some local ad-hoc changes to tactics and procedures followed these events. But the clear outcomes of the BDAG reports never actually translated into significant change. The Department for Communities and Local Government, which took responsibility for the fire service after ODPM published a series of Operational guides that were called ‘Generic Risk Assessments’ GRA 3.2 was specific to fighting fires in high rise buildings. 

The early version of this GRA was another publication that focussed and highlighted many of the risks associated with fires in tall buildings and provided an improved emphasis on incident command that included setting up a bridgehead and vertical sectorisation, but only one of the 22 pages of this version (page 15) discussed ‘Firefighting and Rescue’ and that was primarily focussed on abnormal fire development phenomena such as flashover and backdraught. It is noted though that the 2014 update of this document, in line with the more recent active approach to high rise firefighting increased to 64 pages in total including appendices with several pages dedicated to actions beyond the Bridgehead. 

Closer to home for me in London, following 9/11 the LFB’s Health and Safety department tasked an experienced officer to write a risk analysis for high rise firefighting. I was consulted from time to time on this as it began to take shape, although I was disappointed that the area of London I covered, with the unusual number of both residential and commercial high rise building were not among the stations used to gather data This extensive document remains for me to date the most comprehensive analysis of the associated risks related to high rise firefighting I have ever read. Almost every issue, obstacle or nuance that colleagues and I had ever come across had been included as well as others we hadn’t.

Although the report itself was a presentation of the potential problems and pitfalls, it was enshrined in Health and Safety law with overarching reminders of the duty of employers to provide a safe and effective workplace, entitling them to effectively solve the issues. Tragically, the officer who was responsible for this project died following a short illness when the completed document was still in draft form. Although I still have and refer to this document today, I am not aware the report or its findings were ever published, let alone acted upon as the future at that time may have looked a lot different. 

The latter years.

In the summer of 2009, in London another fine breezy summer day had an impact on a high-rise fire. Lakenhal House is a 14-storey block of maisonettes built in 1959 with a complex construction where each maisonette interlocks or ‘scissors’ across its neighbour. Access is via enclosed internal landings on the odd floors. On the access level, there are two bedrooms and a bathroom and stairs to the upper level where a lounge and kitchen stretch across the full width of the block. This means that the lounge for each flat is above one of the bedrooms of that flat and one of the bedrooms of the flat on the opposite side of the access corridor. The flats were built with fire exits from the lounge and the kitchen to ‘exit balconies’ on either side of the building, and also a fire exit from the largest bedroom into the central access corridor, separate from the front door.

The fire started in a defective Television in the 9th floor bedroom of a maisonette that was laid out on the 9thand 10th floors, the fire developed within the room and because of the warm temperatures the windows in the room were open allowing for a good supply of air to assist the fires development. Fire spread within the maisonette eventually breaking out of windows on both sides of the block. The exterior cladding panels beneath the windows had failed within five minutes allowing for a much quicker spread of flame externally than was anticipated.

In addition to this, a warm breeze of the day blowing against the large slab-sided block allowed air current to move down as well as up. This allowed debris falling from the initial fire to be blown into open windows on lower floors, starting additional fires on the 5th and then 3rd floor maisonettes. 

A third issue was poor fire stopping between the maisonettes and common areas. Redevelopment over the years had led to the initial design of each individual dwelling as a fire resisting concrete box to become compromised, allowing smoke, and fire to permeate into the common hallways and spread fire into these at all levels where dwellings were now on fire. This had a dramatic effect on firefighting, crews who would have started from a bridgehead two floors below the fire and would have been able to approach the scenes of each fire relatively easily, were now forced to withdraw to the lowest level of the building and fight their up and into each level. Sadly, six people were unable to escape their properties because of the spread of fire and smoke and firefighting crews were unable to reach them quickly to affect a rescue.

This fire also called into question for the first time the ‘stay put strategy’ Part of the fundamental principles of British Standard code of Practice 3, was, to quote it directly; Owing to the high degree of compartmentation provided in dwellings in modern blocks, the spread of fire and smoke from one dwelling to another and the need to evacuate the occupants of adjoining dwellings are unusual. The occupants should be safe if they remain where they are. This had obviously led to fire service control rooms stating this as sound advice, that had no doubt worked effectively in many hundreds of not thousands of high-rise fires over the previous five decades. Remote from the scene, they were blind to how the building was failing and how the fire was spreading.

It was only a few months after this I was ordered onto a fire in a high rise building close to Canary Wharf. The block is a 33-storey modern structure with a hotel making up the first 12 floors and high-end residential apartments from the 13th to 32nd floors. Unbeknown to us until quite a way into the incident, the fire was actually limited to a cooking range in the kitchen of a ground floor restaurant. This had been evacuated but no one from the restaurant had approached the fire service, they were just stood among the crowds who had evacuated due to the actuation of the fire detection system.

The fire had spread partially into the ducting above the cooking range that for what is assumed aesthetic reasons, did not exhaust to the outside of the sleek building but instead went up inside a service duct 111m/324ft to the roof. This duct was adequately fire stopped throughout the hotel but in the apartment part of the block, the smoke from the ducting was able to escape and seep onto each landing.

Although the initial call was to a fire alarm in the hotel, LFB control were soon receiving multiple calls to fire at various level of the apartment block. Enroute to the incident, I was aware of constant radio traffic to the fist arriving appliances from Poplar many of which stated people were trapped. The prospect was horrific, but with Lakenhal House on my mind I was determined to try to get ahead of it. I arrived and was the first senior officer on scene. I managed a very quick handover from the Watch Commander from Poplar and then despatched a Station Commander who had arrived just behind me to take command of the bridgehead which I had notionally set at the lowest possible level as we had calls from the 13th to 31st floors. I gave a message to a Firefighter to make the job up to a ten-pump fire and then began to consider my tactical plan. 

Having sent someone to do a 360º reconnoitrer of the block, I was at least satisfied that we didn’t have an extensive visual fire, but more confused as to what was causing so many calls. My tactical gambit was to send whole crews in BA, including their officer, each with the equipment to set up a high-rise fire attack to the bridgehead, with each then deployed to search separate floors to identify the location of the fire and start firefighting and rescue when and if they found it and to immediately inform me and the bridgehead. I was working outside of policy using ‘operational discretion’ but was left with no choice due to the high life risk.

The Senior and very experienced Control Commander on duty that night recognised that a significant fire survival call event was underway. Using his own initiative, he effectively came up with what was to become LFB’s fire survival guidance policy at that moment in time.  He made a decision to send an additional command unit to the scene, in addition to the one that was my command vehicle and also an additional pump so their crew could assist in collating the information. When they arrived, we were very quickly able to collate the details of the people in the 22 premises that were on the phone to LFB control stating they were trapped.

During this time, the fire in the cooking range was identified and dealt with, although residual smoke remained and those on the phone were informed the fire had been dealt with. The reality with any and all fire survival calls is, whether the fire is small or severe or just smoke moving about a building, whether or not those people are in any danger in actual fact. They believe they are in danger and the fire service needs to respond to that quickly and effectively, as their perception and fear could lead them to take drastic measures such as jumping from upper floors or attempting to escape by irregular and dangerous means such as drainpipes or bedsheets. 

The recommendations from the Lakenhal House inquiry that were eventually released were significant. The rule 43 findings alongside the findings from the Shirley Towers fire in Southampton in 2010, where Firefighters Alan Bannon and James Shears were killed and those from the Harrow Court Fire in 2005 amounted to significant requirements for change in the way fires in tall buildings were fought as well as how they are constructed, maintained, and used. 

These recommendations were wide ranging and far reaching. It is not practical or appropriate to discuss them here, even in their most basic headline form, there were implications for multiple stakeholders such as fire and rescue services, local authorities, government departments and the fire industry generally. It is a matter of record that these recommendations were adopted, considered or dismissed by various stakeholders which lead us to the early hours of June 14th 2017.

It is fair to say that nationally the fire service responded to a significant degree, I was personally involved in the discussions around the updating of GRA 3.2, although as stated by Richard Millett QC at the Grenfell Tower inquiry, when interviewing a witness in relation to this update, some of the issues related to fire spread between dwellings and the ability for modern combinations nozzles to work effectively from low pressure dry rising mains that I had argued for were overlooked.

The desire in LFB to reduce the pre-determined attendance to a fire in a high-rise building had thankfully not materialised, but was still in my opinion, verified years earlier by the Fire Brigades Union Critical Attendance Standards document (CAST), still dangerously short of personnel. But improvements in equipment, command, fire survival guidance had advanced, with a limited improvement in the tactical response. 

Grenfell Tower.

The fire at Grenfell Tower that started in the early hours of June 14th 2017, was the worst fire incident that the UK has ever seen. 72 people died in a fire that was a tragic culmination of events that never should have been allowed to happen. It has been discussed and will continue to be discussed widely and as the final report has yet to be published at the time of writing it is inappropriate and to time consuming for me to discuss this in this feature. I have written my personal views of my experience at the incident in my book London Firefighter and elsewhere on this blog.

However, the response to the disaster from all areas of society was as rapid as it was prodigious. At the time I was LFB’s Borough Commander for Hackney, while I was still at the scene of Grenfell Tower during the day, I missed a number of calls from local officials and before the week was out had been with strategic partners and housing leaders across the area, where rapid plans were put into place to assess and report on a range of issues concerning all high rise blocks in the Borough.

The response from LFB was an absolute relief and vindication of what all of us with an interest in high rise firefighting had argued in favour of for a long time. Any call to a fire in a high-rise building was now to attract five pumping appliances and an aerial platform. Multiple calls would attract a ‘full’ attendance to an eight-pump fire including ancillary vehicles and senior officers. That was game changing, but so was the environment we worked in. With so many tall buildings in London, especially residential blocks, fires occur in them on a weekly basis. There is generally a significant fire in one every couple of weeks, but now the landscape had changed.

Just days after Grenfell Tower, a fire occurred in a second floor flat in Holloway, it wasn’t significant for an inner city, but the reaction was understandably dramatic. It appeared that the whole block had self-evacuated once the fire had become visible, a person was injured when they jumped from a lower floor window and responding crews were fighting against a tide of residents running down the stairs and out of the building. The management of the crowd and the safety implications of the public and firefighters added a new dynamic to the response to fires in high rise buildings. ‘Stay Put’ it appears was dead in the water. 

The response from the operational level at fire stations was also significantly improved. Familiarisation visits, increased community fire safety, checks for access for fire appliances. Increased theoretical training, with long since side-lined regulatory fire safety training re-introduced with an emphasis on the technical understanding of the construction and fire protection measures within these buildings. 

Because of the new mobilising protocols, where three or more calls attracted that full response, I found myself being sent out pretty much straight away either in a command role as Group Commander or as a Regulatory Fire Safety tactical advisor. My last year in LFB was certainly not a steady wind down into retirement. In my last three weeks I was in command of two significant high-rise fires; one in Edmonton in North London and one on my own patch, Bow in the East End, where because of its locality to my office, meant I arrived at the very start and was able to get a significant grip on the incident very early on. 

The fire in Grafton House, Bow. June 2018, The Authors last high rise fire.

This was an unusual perspective for someone in my position, although the crews around me were my own, I knew them and the junior officers well, it was a rewarding experience to be able to influence early command decision making and suggest the tactical approach as well as see the plan in action from the outset. The fire was on the 12th floor and had fully developed to flashover stage by the time we arrived, but it was dealt with very quickly, set against the backdrop of most of the block self-evacuating and external flame spread. I had come a long way in my journey, I stood there 30 plus years and three miles from the scene off my first high rise fire in Daubeney Road, Homerton, thinking this was a perfect high-rise swansong. 

Everything that I knew and understood no longer seemed a frustrating conflict of theory versus reality, we all spoke the same language, everyone knew their role and how to perform that role. The equipment, including a choice of higher flowing modern nozzles, was entirely suited and appropriate including a proper bag of high-rise kit (the LFB F.I.R.E bag) and Cleveland hose packs. It had been a long journey and had been frustrating and had ultimately taken a major tragedy to get there, but I left feeling high-rise firefighting in London and the UK was getting close to where it should be. 

Following my retirement in July 2018, training and tactical understanding in LFB and Nationally continued to improve immensely. Empty buildings were used to carry out dynamic training involving simulated fire & smoke as well as casualties. These took place in areas as diverse as the vast housing estates of London to a blocks in small suburban towns in Warwickshire or Northumberland. Aerial ladders became a key part of the response and systems of tactical approaches were experimented with and adopted. This along with new procedures have been debated, often controversially, with conflict arising between Fire Service leaders and Fire Brigade Union representatives. But the progress has in my opinion been outstanding. I have been fortunate enough to have been engaged on a small number of these projects since retirement and I am still proud to be able to contribute my knowledge and experience of high rise firefighting to a new generation.