Opinion: London Fire Brigade will learn from Grenfell inquiry - but will the government?
PUBLISHED: 11:44 23 October 2019 | UPDATED: 11:44 23 October 2019
Last week, the City Hall Fire Committee, which I chair, published the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) report on the Grenfell Tower fire, setting out the progress they have made in learning the lessons identified, acknowledged, and acted upon.
I welcome the report's transparency, openly acknowledging the challenges of things that didn't work as they should have, and what they have, and are doing, to address them - for example, procuring new equipment like taller turntable ladders, drones and evacuation smoke hoods, already used to save lives; and improved training, procedures, and communications between fire crews and the control room. Tower block fires now have an initial LFB attendance of up to 10 fire engines and specialist appliances.
No one can doubt that firefighters displayed unbelievable courage that night, putting their efforts to save others' lives far above their own safety. The scale of the fire, the worst since the London Blitz, was way beyond anything they had experienced or could have prepared for. Yet next week, the Public Inquiry will publish their findings on the events of that tragic night. The LFB is expecting to face criticism and even for individual LFB personnel to be criticised by name.
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Of course, the true responsibility lies with those who allowed the refurbishment of the building to become so dangerous that the fire took the lives of 72 people and left hundreds more with both physical and psychological injuries. The government's fragmented inspection and certification regime can be seen as little more than allowing those responsible marking their own homework.
Whilst firefighters are trained to respond to fires in residential high rise buildings, Grenfell was of a scale and rapidity that was exceptional; preceded and precipitated by an apparent complete failure of the building's fire safety measures. Those failures created a set of conditions not previously experienced by the Fire Brigade and provided a unique challenge for the emergency services - we have all heard about the cladding, but that was only part of the story. The supposedly protected stairs and lobbies, smoke control system, fire lift, the dry rising main water supply, fire doors, all failed too.
The controversial "stay put" policy remains the safest option for buildings whose fire precautions and structure have been properly maintained - but over 200 buildings in London alone, including in both Barnet and Camden, have been identified as having cladding systems and compartmentation that do not meet the required standard and present a risk of uncontrolled internal and external fire spread. Such buildings are subject to temporary measures like "waking watch" and evacuation, but this is no substitute for proper remediation, where progress is far too slow, especially in privately owned blocks.
We can take considerable reassurance that the LFB are on the case in their comprehensive actions to address the lessons in their sphere.
However, many issues are of national concern and are the government must address them - a robust independent inspection regime, ensuring remedial work is done promptly, providing sufficient funding, reviewing the national "stay put" policy and ensuring that sprinklers are not just mandatory in new tall buildings, but retrospectively fitted to older buildings too, as called for not just by LFB but by the coroner who investigated Lakanal House, the last fatal tower fire, 10 years ago.
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