Imagine the refrigerator in the kitchen of flat 16 of Grenfell Tower hadn’t been faulty and hadn’t, in the early hours of Wednesday 14th June 2017, overheated and caught on fire leading to one of the worst fire disasters in history.
Most of the 72 people killed in the disaster would have been alive today, save for other illnesses or accidents that may have befallen them since. The block would still be standing untouched and unremarkable overlooking the Lancaster West Estate in North Kensington.
There is little to celebrate, if ever the phrase “There are no winners” was apt, Grenfell Tower must surely feature near the top of the list. But we are now tragically all too aware of the outcome of a poorly regulated regime in the oversight of building regulations and fire safety. The many hundreds of blocks have now had that flammable cladding removed, preventing similar disasters, is the only glimmer of light in the whole sorry affair.
Thousands of others people, many of them Leaseholders with years invested in paying Mortgages on flats or apartments are now facing up to them being effectively worthless. This is due to the minefield of issues, lack of clarity or responsibility or care from Government, other authorities, Landlords or Home builders. Their nightmare goes on as the nightmare does for those involved in the fire.
So if the fire hadn’t occurred, life would have gone on in and around Grenfell Tower, the Fire crews who attended would have remained in their Stations. North Kensington, Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, Soho, Chelsea, Willesden… and on and on and on across the whole of London.
But what if an hour or so later a fire had broken out in a large hotel in nearby Bayswater road. A fire in a kitchen ducting system that run up through the building that was poorly fire stopped and once alight, began to burn into the timbers, fixtures and fittings of the old building that had been refurbished and altered many times over it’s 120 year life.
Within a short spell, a fire detector head would have detected the smoke and sounded the alarm. Confused, probably irritated and maybe scared, hundreds of residents of the hotel would have made their way out into the warm June night to stand on the opposite side of Bayswater Road wondering how long this rude interruption of their slumbers would go on.
The same fire crews who were called to Grenfell would have instead attended the hotel, probably Paddington & Kensington. Arriving, met by anxious members of staff the first Officer would have been hurredly ushered to the fire alarm panel where he or she would have been met with numerous signals of fire on multiple floors. The smell and light mist of smoke in the lobby would have told them all they needed to know.
Crews would have immediately got to work. Breathing Apparatus would have been donned, hoses laid out, ladders raised, water supplies secured. The Officer would instruct the driver to send an ‘assistance message’ requesting more resources. Now North Kensington, Hammersmith & Chelsea will be on their way.
Inevitably the hidden fire will be way ahead of those trying to tackle it. Growing in size and speed it will break out on multiple levels and more crews will be sent inside to tackle the outbreaks while others desperately break open walls and voids in an attempt to isolate it from further spread.
Eventually Red Watch crews from all across LFB, maybe twenty plus crews, 150 Firefighters and Officers, half of who in the real world attended Grenfell Tower would have attended. Some may have been injured; falls, things collapsing or heat exhaustion. Most would have got to the end of the battle as another beautiful day dawned over London completely exhausted from their efforts. The crowd of hotel guests, initially irritated, then scared and now anxious about their belongings would by now have been sent to other hotels or a nearby sports hall with the well rehearsed business continuity plans of the hotel and local emergency planning team.
But they would have been safe. There would be no anxious crying crowds of survivors and relatives. No Firefighters collapsed with exhaustion lost in deep thought at what they had witnessed, the scenes of the last few hours playing over and over in their minds. There would be small numbers of Firefighters in groups, relaxing drinking water or tea, each crew with their own bragging rights for their bit of the battle, bantering with mates from other stations about who did what, older Firefighters stretching their aching limbs promising themselves, “I’m too old for this, I need to retire” Young Firefighters excitedly relating their experiences to other junior colleagues, some envious as they’d been stuck outside carrying out some menial but essential task in the battle to save the hotel.
The difference between Grenfell Tower and the imaginary hotel fire? The Firefighters are the same, the equipment is the same and the fundamental procedures that inform the tactics employed also the same. Incident Command would be the same, apart from the need to respond to numerous ‘Fire Survival Guidance’ calls.
The difference is, under Fire Safety law, the hotel would require a simultaneous evacuation. People in hotels are among the most vulnerable in terms of fire safety as they are deemed to be “asleep and unfamiliar” overnight. Asleep, as we all generally do overnight, meaning before they react they have to wake up and make themselves aware of their surroundings. And unfamiliar, meaning they are in a large strange building, they probably only know the reception, the lift and the bit of hallway between the lift and their actual room.
Because of that risk, hotels have what are considered to be among the most advanced level of fire detection. Detector heads in all escape routes, all risk rooms (Bedrooms, assembly rooms, kitchens, cupboards, stores etc), pretty much everywhere a fire could start. And when that alarm sounds, the evacuation strategy is that everyone within the building instantly evacuates to a predetermined assembly point, those confused, (recently asleep and still unfamiliar) are assisted and guided by well trained staff who are awake and familiar with the building.
So what of Grenfell Tower and all other purpose built blocks of flats? They are designed with a ‘Stay put’ strategy. This has nothing to do with the attending Firefighters, it isn’t a strategy where the first arriving Fire Officers determine “OK Gang, we’ll treat this one as a ‘stay put’ and leave them all in there…..” Whether a block of flats, a hotel, shop, office factory or whatever. The lack of acceptance and general understanding of this is what frustrates me most about all of the many thoudands of words spoken or written about the Grenfell Tower fire since that day.
The Stay put strategy can be traced back to the 1971 updated (third edition) of British Standard Code of Practice CP3 Chapter IV Precautions against fire – Part 1., Flats and maisonettes (in blocks over 2 storeys). To quote part of it in isolation it says;
“It has become apparent, and generally agreed, that external rescue by the Fire Service may not always be possible from blocks of flats and maisonettes, even when the dwellings are within the reach of escape ladders. Modern traffic conditions and congestion, as well as parking around blocks, may delay the attendance of the fire brigade; furthermore, reliance on such appliances as manipulative types of escape or mobile ladders is considered to be unsatisfactory. Also, the assumption should no longer be made that entire buildings, whole floors or even adjoining dwellings need to be evacuated if a fire occurs. 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 guidance from CP3, although now 50 years old, the words are still used, pretty much verbatim, in current guidance such as the Local Government Group publication Fire Safety in Purpose Built Blocks of Flats. The fundamental difference between blocks of flats and the assumptions made in CP3, versus other buildings is compartmentation. For purpose built blocks of flats it is said; The high degree of fire separation between flats and the common parts is achieved by making each flat a fire-resisting enclosure. This is known as compartmentation. A compartment is simply a part of a building bounded by walls and floors that will resist the passage of fire for a specified period of time. The fire resistance of this construction is such that, normally, a fire will burn itself out before spreading to other parts of the building.
That is the reason why there is no simultaneous evacuation from blocks of flats, why there is no common alarm system, why there is generally only one escape staircase, that doesn’t require the standards of capacity of escape staircases in, for example hotels. THE OCCUPANTS SHOULD BE SAFE IF THEY REMAIN WHERE THEY ARE.
And generally they are. In my 31 years career I personally attended dozens of fire in high rise buildings of all severities. From smoky cooking pot fires to complete burn outs of multi level maisonettes which had (unusually, due to the severity of the fire) slightly impinged on the dwelling above. But never, apart from Grenfell Tower, did I ever see any level of compartmentation failure or external spread that affected other residents, irrespective of the age and condition of the block. The only other outlier, which I didn’t personally attend but was aware of and affected by its implications, was the Lakenhal House fire in 2009 in Camberwell.
Over the life span of purpose built blocks of flats, which for the earliest examples, goes back almost seventy years for those that are considered high rise, there have been many tens of thousands of fires. In almost every case the fire was fought successfully and only those who lived within or adjacent to the dwelling were affected or aware of the fire. In many cases even in my personal experience the majority of those in the block had no idea a fire had occurred.
Does it need to change? Personally I don’t think so. As long as it can be guaranteed that existing and new build blocks retain their absolute fire resistance on a dwelling by dwelling basis, each one being its own ‘fire proof’ box. With well protected escape routes and means to remove smoke from common areas, that the external facade of the building isn’t clad in anything that cannot resist smoke flames and heat coming from the windows of a dwelling that is completely on fire and that any services that run between each dwelling such as utility pipes and ducts are comptely fire stopped between each dwelling then Stay put is fine.
Consider the alternative. Had there have been a fire alarm in the common part of Grenfell Tower. With so many flats and people in the blocks, aside from system faults, (not uncommon) or malicious actuations. I can promise you, the residents would have long ago given up on reacting to it. Yes it works in hotels, offices, factories and shopping centres because a) people are generally not living there and b) where they are regular occupants, such as in an office, they are under control of their employer and generally are trained by fire drills and have duty to comply with their employers safety rules (both fire safety and health & safety).
The nearest thing to an alarm in a blocks of flats is something like student accommodation or nurses homes. For the first half of my career, plenty of night duties were punctuated with fire alarms going off inside such premises. Usually accidentally or as a result of a fault, I went to hundreds at the hospitals and universities around my part of East London, but can count on my hand when they were as a result of a genuine fire (not including burnt cooking). The biggest issue was the general reluctance, with this being the third time the alarm went off that night/week/month, for those who are inside to evacuate, especially at night.
In fact at the start of a new term, it was always obvious who the new students were as they’d dutifully evacuate and be standing outside as required when the alarm went off. As winter came, the nights got colder and they became tired of evacuating the numbers dwindled to just one or two who would respond to the alarm. I am sure all of you reading this who are Firefighters can echo my sentiment.
So back to Grenfell Tower and the completely unjustified and biased criticism of the Fire Service. Had there have been an alarm inside Grenfell Tower, how many would have responded within the time that the single evacuation staircase was still tenable? But as there wasn’t, even if by some miracle of foresight those first arriving Firefighters were to predict what would unfold and tried to evacuate the tower, how on earth would they have done it?
With all of the noise and language barriers, would many of the residents responded to or understood someone standing with a tinny sounding loud hailer 200 or so ft below them? Even for Firefighters who were, as is conveniently and frequently ignored, going and knocking on doors. How many refused to open the doors or on seeing the smoke refused to leave. The individual witness testimonies of many on the night also records a lot of those who did start to venture down the stairs, met with smoke and heat and quite rightly in their distress went back up the building to the upper floors where a disproportionate number from lower floors sadly died.
Almost four years after that night, the second phase of the inquiry is now really digging in to the actions of those who knew about the state of the cladding, those who cut corners and those who were out to save a pound note and those who blatantly refuse to appear at all. Yet as depressing as this all is, my heart still hurts when I think of the awful treatment in the years since of those friends and colleagues of mine, who without question walked into that building on that night prepared to give everything to save the people trapped inside.