News

Grenfell Tower: May orders full public inquiry

19 June 2017 | By Denise Chevin

Image: Metropolitan Police

The prime minister has ordered a full judge-led public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire.

“We need to know what happened, we need to have an explanation of this,” Theresa May said. “We owe that to the families, to the people who have lost loved ones, friends, and the homes in which they lived.”

Her announcement comes in the wake of policing and fire minister Nick Hurd ordering an urgent review of the fire safety of tower blocks of similar construction to Grenfell Tower in Kensington, which was engulfed by fire on Wednesday evening. 

So far at least 17 people have been confirmed to have died in the fire and 17 are in critical care with scores more in hospital. The death toll is expected to rise as scores of people are reported missing.

The fire at the recently refurbished Grenfell Tower in north Kensington has been described by firefighters as the worst incident they had been involved with as flames spread up the outside of the building.

London fire commissioner Dany Cotton has said that the cause of the fire has not been determined as yet. She said: “This is an unprecedented incident. In my 29 years of being a firefighter I have never ever seen anything of this scale.”

The edict from Hurd said: “We have discussed with the department of communities and local government local authorities and the fire service a process whereby we seek to identify towers that might have a similar process of refurbishment and run a system of checks so we can as quickly as possibly give reassurance to people.”

The edict comes as huge questions hang over what went wrong at the 24-storey block where flames engulfed the building within 15 minutes. The spotlight is now on the system used to overclad the building as part of its £8.7m refurbishment in 2016, as well as the whether all the fire stops were in place outside and inside and the general safety management of the blocks.

There is also scrutiny on what happened to a promised review of the fire regulations and approved document B in the wake of recommendations made after the Lakanal House fire in 2009.

The tower’s refurbishment, including new windows and cladding, a new efficient communal heating system and bespoke smoke extract and ventilation system, was completed last year.

The works, carried out by Rydon, also included extensive remodelling of the bottom four floors, which created nine additional new homes and improved spaces for two local businesses.

The refurbishment included overcladding in aluminium composite panels – the contractor that carried out the work subsequently went into administration.

Radon’s CEO Robert Bond said last night that the work “met all required building regulations and was signed off by the council’s building control department.

Bond said: “We were shocked to hear of the devastating fire at Grenfell Tower and our immediate thoughts are with those that have been affected by the incident, their families, relatives and friends.”

The building is managed by Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO) on behalf of the council – which has come under scrutiny for its management and ignoring warnings about the safety of the block from its tenants.

London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, said questions needed to be answered about the fire advice given to residents.

Asked on Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday about advice to residents to stay inside their flats in the event of a fire, Khan said: “Thankfully residents didn’t stay in their flats and fled to safety.

“One of the concerns that we have is it’s a 24-storey building but for obvious reasons, with the scale of the fire, our experts weren’t able to reach all the way to the top, so of course these are questions that need to be answered as soon as possible.”

He added: “It’s very distressing, not just for those of us watching as lay people, but also very distressing for the emergency services.

“We declared a major incident very early, which meant not just the fire service but also the London ambulance service, the police and the others were involved at the scene.”

The fire will reawaken a debate in the sector about safety in tower blocks. Already sector commentators are asking questions. The fire also raises questions for the government. Ministers earlier this year delayed a review into the fire regulations and approved document B.

In February Southwark council was fined £570,000 over safety failings at a 14-storey block of flats where six people died in a fire. 

Three women and three children were trapped by flames that spread out of control at Lakanal House in Camberwell, south London, in 2009, as a result of safety deficiencies in the block. 

At Southwark crown court Judge Jeffrey Pegden told Southwark council, the landlord of Lakanal House, that it must pay a £270,000 fine, plus £300,000 costs.

Before passing sentence, Pegden said: “In this case there was a major fire at Lakanal House on 3 July 2009, involving the tragic loss of six lives – including three children. But the sentence of this court of course can never reflect such a terrible tragedy.”

Cladding under the spotlight

While the fire at Grenfell Tower is still being fought and the number of dead continues to rise, questions are already being raised about the causes with many people pointing the combustibility of the cladding as a factor in the devastating spread of the fire.

Rainscreen cladding was used to cover the building as part of the £8.7m refurbishment. This was made from of aluminium composite panels that have a polyethylene or plastic core sandwiched between two thin aluminium sheets.

It has been used worldwide to clad other high-rise apartment buildings. The Guardian reported that planning documents showed the cladding was constructed from units called Reynobond rainscreen cassettes and was installed by Harley Curtain Wall which was paid £3m for the job. The company went into administration and was bought by an associated company with the same owner.

Similar cladding systems have been linked to a number of similar fires across the world.

A fire at the Lacrosse building in Melbourne’s Docklands on 25 November 2014 is strikingly similar to London’s Grenfell Tower.

The fire at the Lacrosse building was sparked by a cigarette on an eighth-floor balcony and raced up 13 floors to the roof of the 21-storey building in 11 minutes. Fortunately nobody was killed.

After an investigation it was blamed on flammable aluminium composite cladding that lined the exterior concrete walls.

Dubai has also seen a spate of high-rise cladding fires in recent years, most notably on New Year’s Eve in 2015 when the Address Downtown Dubai Hotel erupted in a ball of flames.

Comments

Commercial premises have to undertake fire safety drills on a regular basis. How often is this done for residential blocks?

John Reynolds, 15 June 2017

Seeing the awful news footage and pictures yesterday morning, it was immediately evident that whatever the initial cause, the external cladding was forming chimneys up the sides of the building. It's for that reason it's essential to avoid flammable materials in such cavities, and to install adequate cavity barriers and firestopping to limit spread between floors and adjacent compartments. It's reported that timber fixings were used - on the outside of a 20-storey block. Never mind the fire implications, which have been made obvious to all, what about CDM? How can anyone in this day and age justify putting timber on the outside of a high-rise block? An organic material, it will need more frequent inspection than a material specifically designed for durability. How will these extra inspections be undertaken safely? Without endangering the inspectors or third parties at ground level? What about the works needed for its earlier replacement? Madness on commercial grounds alone, even without the fire implications. Today, all owners and residents must be asking, "What about MY block?" Independant inspections need to be immediate, competent, and thorough. And on record. Video archives of inspections should be considered standard.

Alex Croll, 15 June 2017

Commercial building at least every 12 months.
High rise difficult building every 3 months and review as necessary.

John Boutwood, 15 June 2017

Re John Reynolds comment
In this instance it is fortunate that no fire drills were carried out. If they had been the residents would have been told "on hearing the alarm close the front door and stay in your flat until the fire brigade escort you to safety".
The terrible death toll would be even worse had those who escaped followed this instruction.

Clive Newton ACIOB, 15 June 2017

I can't comprehend how a fire of this magnitude can take hold in such a short space of time and result in such catastrophic damage, loss of life and injury not to mention the huge effect on innocent people's lives my heart goes out to those poor people.
It is a sad inditement on the consctruction sector which I am a part of.
The building has recently been refurbished, surely in this day and age that would have been the ideal time to have installed the latest fire prevention technology (sprinklers) and alarm system.
What about dry risers and compartmentation to reduce the spread of fire and to enable fire fighters to deal effectively with the fire?

Philip Palin, 15 June 2017

I'm sure the fire services investigation will find the causes and from what the media are reporting it sounds like there are quite a few contributing factors.

As mentioned previously perhaps the cavity fire barriers were insufficient, maybe even not installed at all.

Although likely, everyone is pointing at the cladding, not saying it didn't contribute, I have always been skeptical of polystyrene as insulation, however as the building has recently had a major upgrade meaning other factors could have played in the spread of the fire.

Moving forward however to new projects, something often considered as an expensive 'fix' or after-thought are fire suppression systems such as sprinklers and misting systems, these save lives even if the building is ultimately destroyed. Consider the volume of building materials used in a single installation which emit toxic fumes when heated. Smoke often kills before the fire does.

Let's hope the fire service and building experts get to the bottom of this and work with the construction industry towards a solution where a building fire doesn't end up in a loss of life such as this.

Darren Bell MCIAT, 15 June 2017

It's still much too early to make judgments, as the full details are not yet available. 'Stay put' policies are used widely in such buildings, and are a joint decision between the Fire Brigade and the Landlord.

While the cladding is clearly a major line of enquiry for investigators, we also need to remember that there is ongoing research into the spread of flame up the outside of high rise buildings.

There are similar aspects in this fire, the tragedy at Lakanal House, and the recent fire at Shepherd's Court in Shepherd's Bush, but fundamentally, each of those occurrences remains unique and there is no direct linkage between them; equally, there is no silver bullet solution to prevent those three events.

While this is a tragedy, the most important thing is to wait for the findings, learn the lessons, and then for everyone in the industry to ensure that this should never happen again.

Probably the most important aspect is that the Judicial Inquiry should be given an accelerated time frame, and that the Council should be provided with the wherewithal to take immediate actions in order to provide information to the inquiry, and bring in the necessary experts, without having to wait for insurers and other side issues.

Ian Watts MCIOB, 15 June 2017

Leave a comment