What to do in the event of fire?

Grenfell Tower and the history of high rise living

The Hindenburg on fire 1937 The Hindenburg on fire 1937 The Great Fire of London, 1666, destroyed about 80% of the city, some 13,000 buildings, but records show only 6 people were killed and we have no reason to dispute this number. This is remarkable as there was considerable panic. So what did the 'authorities' do about it? Well nothing, as a there was no concept of civic authority as we know it now. But King Charles 11 took charge and, directing the crowd, tried first to quell the fire then to create a fire break. This was done by demolition at one point using gunpowder to bring buildings down. All efforts failed but after four days the fire burnt itself out. So were lessons learned? Oh yes! The original buildings relied on timber construction while their replacements used more masonry. Also streets rather than having a haphazard layout were planned and became wider. Over a very long period the city was rebuilt with much of the credit for the architecture going to Sir Christopher Wren. This work gave rise to both architectural and technical standards which were either equalled or bettered along the way. The Victorians made a huge contribution to London which, despite the passing years, still contributes much to the aesthetic tone of the city. However, following the destruction caused by WW2, which was far greater than that of WW1,there was a rebuilding phase. In London close on 20,000 people were killed by bombing and the number of homes demolished was in excess of 11,000. This led to a housing crisis which was solved first by the displaced people moving in with relatives. This could not last and post- war the Prefab building scheme came in to effect, this had been planned during the war and began in 1945. Well over150,000 of these Prefabs were built all across the UK with an estimated design life of 10 years and some remain to this day. They were both practical and popular. They were so quick to build and could be put on small plots of land and they had appeal to the occupants, it was a ‘home’, had traditional privacy, a garden and it was on the right scale.

The first of the residential Tower Blocks came later in 1951. The popularity of these structures was, so to speak, very much a top down affair, always popular with national and local government. Initially the occupants were grateful but over time the mood changed. Few people aspired to live in them and they developed a negative reputation. Part of the problem here was unruly behaviour and vandalism. On the Continent a block a flats would have a concierge and in the USA a janitor. But here in the UK that was rare and those responsible for the Tower Blocks were slow to act, hence social problems became entrenched. Nonetheless, nobody would have regarded them as unsafe or a fire risk. But in time that was to change. A series of disasters showed that building techniques and the fire brigade had problems. Put simply the former seemed to be ahead of the latter. The list of disasters –

Ronan Point – 1968 Summerland IoM – 1973 Knowsley Heights – 1991 Garnock Court – 1999
Lakanal House – 2009 Grenfell Tower – 2016,
- proved the point.

The list above needs a little explanation. Ronan Point is there because although there was no fire it showed that a poor building technique could go all the way from design to completion. A gas explosion very soon after the building was occupied caused a progressive collapse which killed four people. The investigation into the disaster made many recommendations but the outstanding point was that the responsibility lay with the authorities. Summerland in the Isle of Man was not a residential block of flats but a multi storey leisure centre, it burnt out killing 50 people. The fire was severe because the construction method was clear plastic sheeting on a structural frame. This cladding could easily be ignited then burn and melt so the roof once ablaze poured down onto the floors spreading the fire. The plastic also produced a dense choking smoke. This was another disaster that showed the authorities had a lot of catching up to do. The official inquiry left so many questions unanswered: was there a formal approval of the design or did it just happen? Also the management of the building and how the fire brigade reacted should have been probed, but were not. So lessons that could have been learnt just drifted off to be forgotten.

In the Knowsley Heights fire, started by vandals, the exterior cladding burnt from ground level upwards. While thankfully there were no casualties it was another case of the authorities being wrong-footed. While the cladding was deemed acceptable its application was not. There were no fire breaks hence no natural control of fire once started.

With the Garnock Court fire, which claimed the life of one occupant, the fire started part way up the exterior cladding and was soon out of control but luckily did not take hold of the entire building. Apart from the cladding there had been other changes to the building that were
problematic, the windows were now made from PVC which also burns. Again it seemed that while the cladding was low risk its use along with PVC windows raised questions. As Garnock Court is in Scotland it fell to that authority to review the situation. This led to both removal of suspect materials and changes to building regulations in Scotland.

Lakanal House, a traditional tower block, caught fire due to a domestic electrical fault on the 9th floor of the 14 storey block. The interior of the block was soon full of smoke and the fire spread to the exterior setting fire to some cladding. Six people died and the analysis of the disaster read like yet another chapter in the same old tale of woe. The original design was poor as was the quality of work done to refurbish and maintain the block over its life. But there was also another factor in that the residents who had phoned 999 had been told to, ‘stay put’ and await rescue. While it is true that around 150 people were rescued it later became clear this advice was flawed. Thus it was this aspect of the incident that caught the imagination of the public. Once again lessons were not learnt and the disaster soon slipped from our collective memory.

The final disaster on our list is Grenfell Tower. Here 72 people died and the published material from the inquiry reads like yet another chapter in the same story as for all the other disasters. However, there is a difference in that the official inquiry has thus far been very much more high profile than anything that has gone before. The inquiry is led by Sir Martin James Moore-Bick and the work of the inquiry has been held up by the Covid restrictions. Does this matter? Possibly, in so far as we could guess that those wishing to stymie the outcome may seek benefit from the delay. We should remember that there was some effort put into trying to prevent Moore-Bick from taking up the role. He was, so his critics said, basically too posh for this work, but that failed. This tells us of the political pressure that was building up even before the inquiry began. The blame game here was being played out for high stakes in that the problem went back a very long way. Adding to the complication was that all political parties were involved.

The need for housing post WW2 was obvious but the 1956 Housing Subsidies Act can be thought of as very much part of the problem that Tower Blocks became. It was a Conservative initiative and they were proud of it. The other part was the battle of enthusiasm for this form of construction. It is a fact that unit costs rise dramatically with Tower Block height. The 1956 Act dealt with this by subsidy hence the Tower Blocks were part paid for by taxation. However, the enthusiasm battle was won by Labour. For the local authorities they controlled were obsessed by Tower Blocks. To some extent all political parties are obsessed by infrastructure and assume the nation shares their view. We see a modern version of this with Boris Johnson and his infantile, ‘build, build, build’ mantra. Furthermore, he dresses up like Bob the builder and acts out the role with, in his case, genuine enthusiasm. Alas he and his minders are yet to spot that this is not well received for wise heads know many of the projects will turn out to be the problems of the future. The very term, ‘subsidies’, in the title of the 1956 act should serve as a warning. All governments like to skew and direct infrastructure projects to their advantage and they do so knowing the public will via taxation pay for this. You would have thought the public would know this too and stop voting for political parties who continue to take them for granted.

In 2000 it was the turn of Labour under Blair to play the game. This was when the ‘ Decent Homes Programme’ was introduced. Like all things Blair and New Labour it was strong on presentation but not much else, also termed the Decent Homes Standard it was short on detail. But one part of it is relevant here as it called for homes to have, ‘a reasonable degree of thermal comfort’. This simple statement or aspiration, to use a favourite word of Labour at that time, led to Tower Blocks being insulated. It would be wrong to now pin the blame for cladding fires upon that simple quest put forward by Labour. But as all journeys start with a first step we can see that this was the origin. And once on our way much more detail, direction and oversight would have ideal. But that did not happen.

At the moment Moore-Bick is still taking evidence on matters related to the fire so we wait for that. But the judgement on some matters has been given. There is the, Grenfell Tower Inquiry: Phase 1 Report. Here Moore-Bick comments on the ‘stay put’ policy, the national policy that was used by the London Fire Brigade (LFB). He describes the policy as, ‘an article of faith’. This was a very astute remark and really does go to the heart of the matter. The LFB was running more on faith that fact and it’s hard to find reasons rather than excuses for this. We could also say the LFB had been left behind in the chain of events that led up to the Grenfell fire. The original building was fully compliant with fire protection regulations but the refurbishment changed this. We may only wonder why the LFB failed to keep up. As for the stay put advice there were some in the fire brigade who did dispute the wisdom of this in the light of previous disasters, see the list above. But they were ignored.

Another reason for fire brigade behaviour is the very nature of the organisation. It performs like a holy order with no dissent or outside influences allowed. It’s as if criticism of it is akin to a hate crime! There is only one Fire Service College for the entire UK. This may lead to an inability to think outside of the box and a reluctance to question established views. In the academic world ideas are routinely challenged and this is seen as normal. Peer group review does not destroy ideas but refines and improves them. Should we be looking for this in the public services? If an organisation cannot cope with critical review then there are problems. This looks to be the case with the LFB. The LFB senior officer at the time of the Grenfell fire was Dany Cotton who was retiring early following criticism of the LFB. On her last day at work she was given a guard of honour as she left and also declared that she:

"would not change anything we did"

in respect of the Grenfell fire. It really does look like the LFB have begun a ‘fight back’ against the criticism and raised the stakes in doing so. This will fail. For what has happened in the last year, the year of Covid, is that try as they might the public services have not done as well as the public had hoped for. Hence the public mood has turned critical. Remember when we all thought the NHS was there to ‘save’ us? Then the government turned this around and with a bit of moral blackmail implored us to, ‘save the NHS’! That bit of propaganda worked for a while but you don’t get people clapping for the NHS now. Also ‘stay home save lives’ seems to come from the same mindset as ‘stay put’.

If Cotton wants to save the LFB from criticism then she is deluded as criticism is due. We should compare Cotton to Dominic Cummings who, when he left Downing Street at least kept his mouth shut and did not try to present himself as a victim. So what happens next? Well we all depend on and wait for the Moore-Bick Inquiry to be concluded. If the delays caused by Covid allow the impact of the conclusions to be diluted then that really is yet another tragedy. With Cummings gone there will be no reform. But that is what is needed in ALL the public services.