Opinion

Grenfell Tower: A tragedy waiting to happen

19 June 2017 | By Hannah Mansell

Hannah Mansell says fire safety issues are endemic in tower blocks of this nature.

Hannah Mansell

24 hours later, and the fire in North Kensington still burns. The scale of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower is harrowing and heart-breaking.

But after the grief comes anger. And we have a right to be very angry indeed at the news about Grenfell Tower.

I regularly sit in meetings with fire safety professionals, and their fury and frustration at the inaction of local councils and social landlords is palpable. We have been warning about the risks of a fire like this for years. “What we need to get people to take notice is a huge fire in a tower block” they say. Well, here it is.

Of course, it’s true that with good design, management and maintenance, tower blocks can be safe. But I don’t see much evidence of those three things in my day-to-day work, and to stay silent on our concerns so we “don’t scare people” is not an option anymore. Because, quite frankly, I see an endemic fire safety problem in this type of housing stock.

Just last year, BWF Certifire made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to each of London’s 32 councils. It asked how many residential blocks over six storeys the council owned, and for the date of the last fire risk assessment. The results were shared with the enforcing authority, London Fire Brigade.

Only 15 full responses were received, identifying a housing stock of 1,025 residential blocks six storeys in height or above. These responses were obviously from the more “confident” councils. All their blocks had had a fire risk assessment, and 90% of those assessments had last been updated in the previous couple of years.

So far so good, you might think. But what about the other 17 councils?

Concerns over fire safety in towers have been voiced. (Wikimedia Commons)

And keep in mind that the frequency of a fire risk assessment is determined by a number of factors including a risk rating, the age of building and the number of storeys. The fire risk assessment should be considered a living document – it doesn’t remain valid for an unlimited amount of time. Regular review is required.

Indeed, current local government guidance goes as far to say that for blocks with higher risk and blocks over four storeys in height, an annual review might be more appropriate, with a new fire risk assessment every three years. For the highest risk premises, an annual fire risk assessment might be appropriate.

Our FOI research revealed that there were 102 high rise residential properties in London that were fire risk assessed prior to 2014. Two councils responded that they had a number of buildings that had last been assessed in 2010 and 2011, over five years ago.

So we went to have a look. Onsite inspections to some of these buildings revealed visible breaches of fire safety including flats without fire doors, no emergency lighting or signage on fire doors and escape routes, broken fire rated glass, wedged-open fire doors, poor fire stopping around service hatches that breach compartmentation, no smoke seals in fire doors, rubbish and combustible material left in the common areas, and no information displayed on the specific fire plan of the building.

We tried to get these findings made public. But the councils involved in this FOI research disputed the results. The information was out-of-date, they said. Some even claimed their FOI departments hadn’t understood what they were being asked for. The story got spiked.

So here we are, a year later, and we face months and years of questions, inquests and investigations into the Grenfell Tower fire. It must rank as one of Britain’s worst fires, if not the worst there has ever been.

My heart goes out to the residents of Grenfell Tower, their neighbours, friends and families, and the extraordinarily brave fire fighters and medics who are continuing to deal with the emergency.

But to every local council and housing association I say, you know what to do, take action today. The next one could be tomorrow.

Hannah Mansell is technical manager of BWF-Certifire, chair of the Passive Fire Protection Forum, trustee of the Children’s Burns Trust and spokesperson for the national safety and awareness campaign Fire Door Safety Week (25 September-1 October 2017).

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