A ‘Stay put’ policy is a decades old strategy, incorporated into the design of a building, primarily for purpose built residential buildings, whereby the building is generally made of concrete and each flat is a concrete box able to contain a fire until it burns itself out. So arguably even if the Fire Service didn’t attend the fire, that fire should consume all of the fuel within that ‘box’ and not spread beyond the compartment (flat) of origin. Of course, this relies on the front door also being fire resistant and if the windows fail due to the fire inside the flat, the ‘products of combustion’ (flames heat and smoke) escaping should not be able to spread externally.
We now know, that the cladding used at Grenfell Tower was not only non-fire resisting, it was actually flammable and as some reports have put it “Like covering the building with petrol”.
I like many of my colleagues who have served over the past few decades in inner-city Fire Stations have attended dozens upon dozens of fires in high rise residential buildings. Where almost all of the fires have been contained to a room or two, in some cases a complete burn out and vary rarely (often due to UPVC windows and decorative cladding, fitted as part of a refurbishment) some limited external spread to one or two floors above.
Until Grenfell, even after the tragic Lakenhal House fire in 2009, very few members of the public noticed, knew of or frankly cared about fires in high rise buildings. It was only us within the Fire Service or Fire protection industry who noticed or cared, particularly where the cost to the responding Firefighters ended in the ultimate sacrifice. Iain McPhee in Birmingham 1992, Michael Miller and Jeff Wornham in Stevenage 2005, Alan Bannon and James Shears in Southampton 2010.
And that is quite right, I don’t expect everyone outside of the fire service to notice or remember every type of fire. As a Firefighter serving an inner city area, I noticed these because I was involved in dealing with them quite frequently and also when driving around in other parts of London or the UK would often catch a glimpse of a block of flats showing scars of a previous fire, which I’d notice out of professional interest.
However, despite these numerous fires being fought week in week out across the UK for the past fifty odd years. Any high-rise fire since Grenfell…. Even a relatively innocuous fire contained to a balcony caused by a dropped cigarette causes exaggerated and unhelpful media reporting further stoking the belief that these fires are incredibly rare and extremely dangerous for everyone in the building, completely undermining the safe construction of the vast majority of these buildings, many which have stood for decades, probably having had several flats fires over those years.
It also undermines the Firefighters responding to these fires as it appears an element of trust has been lost and Firefighters are now battling up the stairs against a tide of (quite rightly as a result of recent events) panicking residents trying to escape. Like I said, over the course of 31 years in London Fire Brigade, I attended countless fire in high rise buildings… most of those fires were fought, especially those at night, with the majority of residents having no idea a fire had occurred.
To give this some perspective, in the last two weeks of my career before I retired in July 2018, I attended and took command of two serious high rise fires. One in Bow and another in Edmonton. Both, particularly the Bow fire were much more serious fires in the flat of origin at the outset than Grenfell was. In both cases, some people evacuated when they become aware of the fire, others stayed within their flats. The Fire at Bow completely burnt the flat out, flames and smoke extended right out of the windows and balcony, yet because the building was not covered in a flammable cladding, the fires were extinguished within 20 minutes of the arrival of the Fire Service, no one died and only one person was injured due to slight smoke inhalation.
That leads to the subject of the Fire Brigades responsibility for the ‘Stay put’ policy. Basically, the stay put policy is a strategy related to the building and agreed as part of the buildings overall firefighting strategy at the design stage. It has nothing to do with the Geography of the area, whether a large full-time fire station is just a street or two away or it is in a small town with a part-time Fire Station several miles away. It matters not whether the crews are ‘battle hardened’ City Firefighters from Hackney, Moss Side or Springburn… stay put applies to the building.
The principles of the stay put policy in relation to purpose built flats evolve from their relatively small and ‘fireproof’ concrete box flats and the assumed ‘familiarity’ of those who reside in them knowing very well the layout of their own flat as well as the way in and out of the block. They are also assumed to have small movements of residents at any one time, which is why they were designed with only a couple of lifts and one staircase and as a result of that they use a ‘stay put’ fire strategy.
The reason office blocks have dedicated fire alarms and a progressive evacuation is that generally, although often steel framed with concrete floors, the layout is more open plan and fire can spread quicker. And hotels, although seemingly similar to flats have the most vulnerable combination of people; ‘asleep and unfamiliar’ relating to their overnight stays in an unknown building, a potential and sadly as history has taught us, frequent cause of multiple fatalities in fires. Shops, hospitals, cinemas and other places of public gathering also share the same risks and are therefore often fully evacuated by a fire alarm system.
So, the Firefighters attending a fire are not the ones who decide whether or not it is a ‘stay put’ policy. Blaming Firefighters for a failure of a stay put policy is like blaming a mechanic who can’t fix the engine of a badly built and poorly maintained car after the engine has seized up.
Because I attended the fire at Grenfell Tower, albeit several hours after the fire broke out. I have had to make a statement about my actions, I am subject to the rules of the enquiry and as such I cannot discuss the specifics of the incident. However, we have all seen how quickly the fire spread up the outside of the building and then spread inside dozens of those flats on every floor above the original fire. That type of fire spread had never been seen before, it was completely beyond the knowledge, experience and frame of reference of anyone in the UK Fire Service.
Despite expert opinions on previous cladding fires, including some in London, those fires spread over no more than a few floors and did not cause the fire to wrap around the building. There were more expert theories on at what point in the fire the ‘stay put’ policy failed. Again, in the ‘shock and awe’ of what my colleagues were facing in those first desperate hours, even if someone had been able to have a moment of incredible hindsight. I have no way of knowing how the building could have been instantaneously evacuated at that point.
For lots of sound reasons, there was no communal fire alarm to set off. Loud hailers, in all of the noise and confusion, especially for those on higher floors would not have been able to convey that message. And if a hundred or more people had opened their doors and evacuated simultaneously, as they would in a hotel for example when the alarm sounds for a fire which is still small and picked up quickly by the fire detectors…. What would the outcome have been?
An understanding of human behaviour in fire as well as knowledge and long bitter experience of fire, heat and smoke leads me to conclude that my colleagues and the London Fire Brigade would now be facing accusations of sending a hundred plus people to their deaths. Instant blinding choking smoke, heat which saps strength in seconds, blind panic…. The mental image, having seen people trapped in fires many times is awful beyond comprehension. This isn’t Hollywood…. It isn’t a matter of a small wet handkerchief and a room lit up as clear as day by the glow from smokeless flames. They wouldn’t have seen a hand in front of their faces, the heat would have pinned them to the floor and unlike a cigarette or tolerable smoke from a bonfire in the open, the first breath of the acrid poisonous smoke would be instantly choking causing the throat to close up in hopeless defence.
Grenfell Tower is one of the greatest tragedies of our time. There are no winners. The poor people living in that building never stood a chance once that small fire broke out of the kitchen window of the fourth floor and crept behind the cladding into the flammable insulation material. The Firefighters and Officers who responded from across London also never stood a chance. They tried, from brand new recruits, to grizzled firefighting veterans from some of the busiest fire station in the World to the senior officers sent to command the incident to the helpless control room staff, blind to the incident in a control room several miles across London, a few of them trying to deal with multiple fire survival calls…. They all showed once in a generation levels of courage, spirit and leadership, many expecting never to come out alive. How none were killed is still the greatest surprise to me.
Hindsight, cool calm reflection and second by second attention to detail in pulling apart every single aspect of what went on after 1am on 14th June 2017, as you would expect, has highlighted a number of questions about the response. Obviously, none of that with the mind fogging horror of what those ordinary men and women that do an exceptionally extraordinary job were faced with.
I don’t have a problem with that, the relatively safe life we live today from cars with safety cages to clean, safe drinking water from our taps all came about from improvements, advances and lessons learned. What I do question is the ‘back to front’ scope of the enquiry. It seems so much time and energy had been expelled looking at what happened from the time the fire started, yet no one has even begun to officially question how those poor people were left to live inside the building and how those brave souls, who answered the call for help were meant to deal with an insurmountable firefighting and rescue operation.
Grenfell Tower happened after I had completed thirty years with London Fire Brigade, I have always served in busy inner-city areas, so by exposure and time served I was one of the most experienced Firefighters to attend. Yet the scene I faced when I arrived over six hours later shocked me to the core, what I saw in the next fourteen hours will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have had some very dark days in an otherwise wonderful fulfilling career, but the Fire at Grenfell Tower was by far my darkest day and has greatly affected me. I can only begin to imagine the impact it had on those less experienced who dealt with the horror from the very beginning.
The Fire Service in the UK will change as a result of Grenfell Tower. Many things have already changed, despite no increase in budgets to respond to fires in tall buildings, to inspect them or protect them. I also hope and pray regulations around construction, refurbishment, materials used and fire safety legislation will also change. It needs to if we are to prevent another tragedy in the future
But most of all I hope the 72 people who died, did not die in vain and the ‘blame’ for such a tragic loss ends up only at the feet of the London Fire Brigade because of smoke and mirrors avoids looking at the real cause…. Not how the fire wasn’t contained, not how we weren’t able to get to 72 people before they perished and not whether or not ‘stay put’ was to blame…. But the sequence of events that led to a small fire in a kitchen to completely destroy a 24 storey block of flats and take such a large toll on life.
Dedicated to those who were lost and those who tried to help.