Learning the lessons from Grenfell

As we are all acutely aware, this month marks the second anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire; a tragedy which continues to have a huge impact on the friends and family of those who sadly lost their lives, the local community, London Fire Brigade and fire services across the country.

My first thoughts will always remain with those who lost their lives. At the time of the fire, I had been a serving firefighter for more than 35 years, and I had never seen a fire react like that, not only spreading up the tower but around and down the external walls, it impacted so many people and continues to have ramifications across the world. I would also like to pay tribute to all emergency services who were in attendance; it is difficult to imagine what they faced that night and in the days that followed. I believe everyone did all they could to save lives and reduce injuries.

In the days which followed the fire, a wide-range of complex issues unfolded. It was essential that the National Fire Chiefs Council supported London Fire Brigade and played a key role in what happened next, to try to ensure that such an incident could be prevented in the future. Within days interim measures had been devised for similar building, while fire services across the country were visiting high-rise buildings.

I attended COBRa and Ministerial meetings and as screening tests started to identify dangerous ACM on many other residential buildings NFCC implemented a national incident room, allowing us to collect information on ACM cladding and high-rise buildings across the country. This was then fed back to government, helping to provide a national picture of the size of the problem.

Just a few days after the tragedy, an independent expert advisory panel was set up to advise on immediate measures to make buildings safe, I was invited to join the panel and I am still a member. We looked at actions and provided advice to make all public and private buildings safe as quickly as possible, while helping to reassure residents.

Shortly after this, the Independent Review into Building Regulations and Fire Safety was set up; NFCC has played a key role in this review and worked closely with Dame Judith Hackitt with representation on each of the workstreams set up. While we welcomed the majority of recommendations within the report, there are elements we remain concerned about.

NFCC believes Dame Judith’s definition of high-risk buildings of residential properties above 30 metres was too narrow. We would like the initial scope expanded to include buildings where vulnerable people who need evacuation assistance reside, such as hospitals, sheltered housing, specialised housing and similar.

Last October, the government announced it would ban combustible cladding, although we are yet to see an ACM 3 cladding system that passed the 8414 test, NFCC would like to see the ban go further and apply to buildings under 18 metres in height. Everyone should be afforded the same protection, regardless of the type of building – especially buildings which are used to house vulnerable people. Also this ban should not be considered ‘job done’ as there is more to do to ensure the safety of residents.  

Recently we saw the government announcement of a £200 million fund for the removal of ACM cladding from privately owned high-rises. This is a step in the right direction and should go some way to help people feel safer in their homes – a right which should be available to all. However, I would have liked to have seen this happen sooner as it was raised as part of the Ministerial task force some time ago. However, addressing cladding alone is not enough, we need urgent changes to mend our broken building safety system, including having enough competent people involved at every stage from design, through construction, occupation and maintenance.

In the first HMICFRS inspectorate reports of fire services the capacity of fire protection services across fire services were highlighted as a concern, due to the consequence of long-term under investment. This is something we need to change; but this also needs the support and commitment from the government to ensure we can resource this effectively. The Tranche 2 reports will be reported imminently, and it is likely this pattern will be repeated.

NFCC has now set up a specialised Building Safety Team to assist with all the work emerging from Grenfell and the Hackitt Review, maintaining our contribution and ensuring we remain a key driver for change. We will continue to push for change as part of our work and ensure NFCC is keeping the voice of the Fire Service at the forefront of any changes made, and challenging decisions where we need to.

The Grenfell Inquiry is underway and may not convene until 2020. The evidence in phase one of the inquiry was – at times – very difficult to witness. The fact the phase one report is not yet published seems to me to show the extreme complexities of the incident. We will, however, continue to learn lessons from the Inquiry and ensure our colleagues in London Fire Brigade have NFCC’s full support.

Fire services across the country will pay tribute and commemorate all those who lost their lives on June 14, the tragedy is at the forefront of our minds and we will do all we can to ensure we never see a tragedy of that scale again.

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